1981: Not Kim Dae-jung, South Korean president and Nobel laureate

Add comment January 24th, 2018 Headsman

South Korea’s dictator reluctantly commuted the death sentence of democracy activist Kim Dae-jung on January 24, 1981 … a gesture that would eventually enabled Kim to return the same favor to the dictator.

A farmer’s son who became a wealthy businessman and a charismatic orator, the Catholic Kim had been a fixture of the political opposition since the 1960s which was a dangerous profession. In his address accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for 2000, Kim reflected that

five times I faced near death at the hands of dictators. Six years I spent in prison, and 40 years I lived under house arrest or in exile and under constant surveillance. I could not have endured the hardship without the support of my people and the encouragement of fellow democrats around the world. The strength also came from deep personal beliefs.

I have lived, and continue to live, in the belief that God is always with me. I know this from experience. In August of 1973, while exiled in Japan, I was kidnapped from my hotel room in Tokyo by intelligence agents of the then military government of South Korea. The news of the incident startled the world. The agents took me to their boat at anchor along the seashore. They tied me up, blinded me and stuffed my mouth. Just when they were about to throw me overboard, Jesus Christ appeared before me with such clarity. I clung to him and begged him to save me. At that very moment, an airplane came down from the sky to rescue me from the moment of death.

His life on that occasion was saved by the aggressive intervention of U.S. ambassador Philip Habib.

South Korean politics went on tilt after the ruler who nearly had Kim “disappeared” in 1973 was himself bizarrely assassinated by the country’s intelligence chief in late 1979. Emboldened democracy movements raced into the ensuing power vacuum, roiling cities and universities and culminating in May 1980 when a popular uprising in Kim’s native Jeolla was crushed with hundreds of deaths, bringing martial law in its wake. This was the Kwangju or Gwangju Rising (and/or -Massacre), and it led to Kim’s condemnation for sedition.


Kim Dae-jung in the front row of prisoners on trial after Kwangju.

The U.S. Carter administration, and (from November of 1980) the transition team for the incoming Reagan administration, worked strenuously behind the scenes to effect a commutation;* hanging Kim, Reagan foreign policy advisor Richard Allen warned a Korean intelligence delegation, “would be like a bolt of lightning out of the heavens that will strike you.”

The dictator Chun Doo-hwan eventually traded Kim’s life — he’d be sent into exile in the United States under the pretext of going abroad for medical treatment — for an official visit in the first weeks of the incoming president. Reasoning that

Kim’s execution would inflict long-term damage on Chun’s rule, which by this time had stabilized … On January 24, 1981, Chun commuted Kim’s death sentence to life imprisonment and lifted martial law. On February 3, Reagan warmly welcomed Chun to the White House for a summit meeting. He was the second foreign head of state Reagan met after his inauguration. This meeting was important in enhancing the legitimacy of Chun’s leadership both at home and abroad.

-Chae-Jin Lee, A Troubled Peace

Kim returned to South Korea in 1985 as a closely-monitored opposition figure and re-entered politics, repeatedly seeking election to the presidency — which he finally won in 1997, earning not only executive power but the rare opportunity to repay Chun Doo-hwan’s bygone act of grace.

Earlier in 1997, Chun had been convicted by the post-dictatorship courts on a number of capital charges relating to his reign in the 1980s, and himself sentenced to die. President-elect Kim coordinated with his predecessor Kim Young-sam to have Chun’s sentence commuted during the transition.

“In all ages, in all places, he who lives a righteous life dedicated to his people and humanity may not be victorious, may meet a gruesome end in his lifetime, but will be triumphant and honored in history; he who wins by injustice may dominate the present day, but history will always judge him to be a shameful loser. There can be no exception.”

-Kim

* For period context, recall that in April of 1979 the Pakistani military government had hanged the former prime minister, over Washington’s objections.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Korea,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Politicians,Power,South Korea,The Worm Turns,Treason

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2003: Nobody in Illinois

16 comments January 11th, 2009 Headsman

Six years ago today, a scandal-plagued governor of Illinois cleared out the state’s death row.

Republican George Ryan, in a speech two days before the end of his term, announced a mass commutation for anyone under sentence of death in Illinois — 157 people plus 10 others with pending legal challenges to vacated sentences, and four condemned men pardoned outright.

[flv:http://www.executedtoday.com/video/George_Ryan_clemency_announcement.flv 300 225]

Once a pro-death penalty legislator, Ryan grew increasingly discomfited with the state’s administration of the error-prone ultimate sanction.

That “demon of error” was dramatically unveiled for Ryan by Anthony Porter, a mentally retarded death row inmate who fortuitously avoided execution by two days on a legal technicality, and was subsequently exonerated by Northwestern University journalism students.

Seen as part of a pattern of wrongful convictions — like that of Rolando Cruz, who was cleared in the early 90’s despite the dogged efforts of then-Attorney General (and present-day quasi-Senator) Roland Burris to execute him in the face of exculpatory DNA evidence.

The governor imposed a moratorium on conducting executions for most of his term, culminating with this day’s controversial (though it did score him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination) announcement. Maybe there’s just something in the water at the Springfield governor’s mansion that attracts its residents to impolitic death penalty interventions.

Successor Rod Blagojevich called Ryan’s blanket clemency “a big mistake”, and his formal continuation of the Ryan moratorium on actual executions has been a dead letter since inheriting a vacant death row meant that no capital case reached the end of its appeals on his watch.

For the favor of sparing Blagojevich the burden of handling a death warrant — although one doesn’t get the sense that Blago is the type for a troubled conscience — George Ryan has been unkindly repaid.

Now residing in federal prison on corruption charges, the ex-governor’s own clemency petition has been complicated by sensational allegations of Blagojevich’s graft.

That petition is addressed to an outgoing executive oppositely inclined on the death row commutation question. Ryan authorized one actual execution early in his term, and spared this day’s host; George W. Bush, his virtual mirror image, has issued one commutation and carried out 155 executions during his time as chief executive of Texas and of the United States.

George Ryan is reportedly skeptical of his prospects for receiving a pardon.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Illinois,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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