John Paul II's appeal saved future Korean president from death sentence

Thomas More Kim Dae-jung
Thomas More Kim Dae-jung

.- A letter from Pope John Paul II asking for clemency helped save the life of a future South Korean president who was sentenced to death by a military tribunal in 1980, new information reveals.

Then-President Chun Doo-hwan had accused Thomas More Kim Dae-jung of inciting the pro-democracy Gwangju People’s Uprising on May 18, 1980, UCA News reports. The uprising was crushed by the military, resulting in an official toll of 191 dead and 852 injured. However, more than 1,000 may have actually died in the clashes. When Kim was sentenced to death on December 4, 1980, Pope John Paul II wrote to President Chun a week later seeking clemency.

Chun replied to the Pope on January 5, 1981, claiming that Kim had not been charged because of political issues but had committed “an anti-national crime including subversion.”

However, President Chun acknowledged the Pope’s appeal for clemency was “based on humanitarian consideration and compassion.”

Kim’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on January 23, 1981. In response, Pope John Paul II sent a February 1981 letter to President Chun saying “you courteously acknowledged the appeal I made on purely humanitarian grounds for an act of clemency in favor of Kim whose death sentence has recently been commuted."

"I pray God to watch over the noble Korean people and to bestow his richest favors on you all," the Pope wrote.

Kim’s sentence was reduced to 20 years and he was forced to go to the United States in 1982, UCA News reports. He later returned to Korea and was placed under house arrest, with his full legal rights being restored in 1987.

Kim won the December 1997 election and became president in February 1998, leaving office in 2003.

President Kim visited the Vatican in 2000. According to UCA News, he told Pope John Paul II “You saved my life, I am grateful.”

The president won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize but was not officially cleared of the original charges against him until 2004.

The letters from Pope John Paul II and President Chun were revealed by the National Archives of Korea on May 18, 2009 at the request of the local daily newspaper of Gwangju, Kwangju Ilbo. The paper reportedly seeks details of the Gwangju People’s Uprising every year to help commemorate it.


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