WHEN South Korea decided recently not to indict two former presidents implicated in a 1979 military coup, it set off an intense national debate.
The two ex-generals, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, should be indicted to ``establish a national spirit by correcting the wrongdoings of the past,'' demanded an opposition leader at a massive rally last week.
But President Kim Young Sam, elected under a reborn democracy in 1992, said indictments would jeopardize ``national unity.''
Such emotional debates are echoing around the world as many nations, shedding authoritarian or communist rule for democracy during the collapse of the cold war, are being forced to deal with their previous oppressors.
But in squaring accounts with their past, these nations often find it difficult to choose between vengeance and reconciliation, between justice and mercy. Some choose to do nothing at all.
``The big dilemma,'' says Jamal Benomar of the Geneva-based United Nations Center for Human Rights, ``is how to strike a balance between the ethical and legal obligations of the government; between the demands of victims for justice and the need to further the democratization process and achieve reconciliation. This is the issue that is being debated.''
``There's no panacea for resolving this problem,'' Mr. Benomar adds. ``There's no model.''
The dilemma for nations coming to terms with the past is not new. The French parliament agonized for three years before deciding to send King Louis XVI to the guillotine in 1793. In the United States, the White House and Congress engaged in a protracted debate over how to deal with the defeated Confederacy after the Civil War.
But today, international law requires governments to investigate human rights violations, to bring violators to justice, and to compensate victims. As a practical matter, governments must struggle with the past without compromising the future.
Settling accounts with regimes that have trampled on individual liberties and engaged in extralegal detention, torture, and executions can have a cathartic effect on society, providing a symbolic break with the legacy of authoritarian rule.