Photo: Chun U-won visits the May 18 National Cemetery and wipes the tombstone of a protester with his coat as a tribute. Credit: Yonhap.
On March 31, Chun U-won 전우원 became the first member of the dictator Chun Doo-hwan 전두환’s family to visit Gwangju 광주 to apologize for the dictator’s mass murder in the city in 1980. Chun U-won is the son of Chun Jae-yong 전재용, the second son of the authoritarian who ruled South Korea from 1980 to 1987. Until recently, the 27-year-old younger Chun was working as an investment banker in New York.
Chun began making news around March 13, when he opened an Instagram account and began posting childhood photos in an apparent attempt to establish the veracity of his identity as Chun Doo-hwan’s grandson. In addition, Chun posted numerous photos of his relatives living a life of luxury, as well as social media profiles of Chun family associates who funded their lifestyles through money laundering. As his posts began going viral, Chun hosted live video sessions where he would take media interviews and questions from curious onlookers.
Chun said he was motivated by the fact that his father was attempting to earn US citizenship to escape attention from South Korea while claiming to be a pastor, which offended his own Christian faith. (Sin and atonement are consistent themes in Chun’s numerous Instagram posts.) Chun began displaying increasingly erratic behavior on his live video sessions, alternately laughing and crying while overwhelmed by emotion. Finally on March 17, he ingested a fistful of narcotics on a live video session, and was shown being taken out of his apartment by police and paramedics.
Then on March 28, Chun arrived at Incheon Airport, where he was immediately arrested on drug charges. After being released on bail, he traveled to Gwangju. Despite concerns over his erratic behavior, in Gwangju, Chun U-won appeared even-keeled and articulate. In his meeting with the survivors of the May 18 Democracy Movement 5.18 민주화운동, Chun said: “There is something I must tell you here, the truth that I have not been able to recognize because of my ugly heart. My grandfather, Chun Doo-hwan, is a mass murderer and criminal who committed a heinous crime on May 18. As a member of his family, I acknowledge this fact and offer my deepest apologies.”
Following his statement, Chun knelt and bowed deeply in the traditional fashion to the survivors, who embraced him. Kim Gil-ja 김길자, mother of Mun Jae-hak 문재학, a 14-year-old citizen soldier in the 1980 uprising whose death was recounted in the best-selling novel Human Acts 소년이 온다 by Han Kang 한강, told Chun to “consider Gwangju your second hometown.” Chun then visited the May 18 National Cemetery 5.18 국립묘지 to pay tribute - the first Chun family member to do so.