South Korea apologized for the atrocities its military had committed against civilians during a pro-democracy uprising nearly four decades ago.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Ministry of National Defense recognized the “unspeakable, deep scars and pain” that soldiers inflicted on “innocent women” in the city of Gwangju amid a crackdown on protests against general Chun Doo-hwan from May 18-25, 1980.
At the time, thousands of Gwangju citizens rallied against Chun’s military junta, which emerged after an internal coup that took place eight months following the assassination of his mentor, President Park Chung-hee.
For nine days, Chun sent tank-led paratroopers that ruthlessly deterred protesters, including passersby who had no part in the revolt.
Government figures claim that more than 200 people died or went missing after the rampage, which had demonstrators and bystanders beaten to death, tortured, bayoneted, disemboweled or riddled with bullets, according to the AFP.
Meanwhile, activists believe that the number of casualties could be three times more, with countless women succumbing to sexual assault.
“The investigation has confirmed rapes, sexual assaults and sex tortures were committed by martial law troops,” said Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, who revealed that some of the victims were “young students and a pregnant woman who were not even taking part in the protests.”
“On behalf of the government and military, I bow deeply and offer my words of apology for the unspeakable, deep scars and pain inflicted on innocent victims,” Jeong said.
The apology comes a week after a government fact-finding team confirmed 17 cases of sexual assault committed at the time, Yonhap News reported.
The team, which was established in June, consisted of officials from the ministries of National Defense and Gender Equality, as well as the National Human Rights Commission.
Ahead of Jeong’s statement, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon apologized during a parliamentary meeting, saying that he feels “inexplicably terrible.”
“Unjustly mobilized state power trampled on women’s lives,” Lee said. “I feel inexplicably terrible and am apologetic. I offer a word of apology to victims and Gwangju citizens.”