The former President Chun Doo-hwan, who ruled this nation in the 1980s, was convicted on Monday morning of treason and received the death sentence from a three-judge panel in a hushed moment that seemed to close a chapter of repression.
Standing next to him in the packed courtroom was another ex-president, Roh Tae-woo, 63, who was convicted on charges connected with the coup in 1979 and was sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison.The two men gripped hands when they first entered the courtroom, but they were not photographed as the sentence was read out.
Monday's verdicts on Chun, Roh and 32 other defendants, who include the nation's top business leaders, are likely to have far-reaching implications for this budding democracy, which is furiously trying to join the ranks of advanced democratic nations.
For many South Koreans, the sentences are a cleansing and a closing of a wound that has been at the center of South Korean society and politics for 15 years.
Chun, who ruled South Korea from 1980 to 1988, was convicted of directing the coup in which he seized power in 1979.
In a statement read by a judge before the verdicts were delivered, Chun was also said to be guilty of murder, according to a spokesman for the Seoul District Court. Thus, Chun seems to be held responsible for staging the massacre at Kwangju in 1980, in which several hundred pro-democracy student demonstrators were machine-gunned or clubbed to death.
Roh was convicted of taking an important role in the mutiny and insurrection, though he was not given the life sentence demanded by the prosecutors, according to the Korean Broadcasting Station.
Nonetheless, the sentences of the two former presidents are a reminder of how harsh repression, even if it seems to bring economic success, can fester and bring down dictators years later.
"They will promote both democracy and justice," Moon Chung-in, a professor of political science at Yonsei University, said of the sentences. "They will symbolize the rule of law and bring about deterrence for those who want to seize political power by illegal means."
Leaders in Asia, particularly in China and Indonesia, have been betting that military crackdowns will be forgiven if they usher their people out of poverty and into wealth. But the lessons of Monday's sentences are that Chun and Roh made that same bet and that they lost.
Still Chun, a former general, is unlikely to be executed. He plans an appeal, and it is possible that President Kim Young-sam will grant a pardon.
"President Kim should pardon Chun and Roh because they are like dead bodies, and you can't kill a dead body twice," Moon said.