Former South Korean military strongman Chun Doo-hwan, who took power in a 1979 coup and brutally crushed pro-democracy protests before going to prison for misdeeds while in office, died Tuesday. He was 90.
Chun, who suffered in recent years from Alzheimer’s disease and a blood cancer, was declared dead after a heart attack at his Seoul home, police and emergency officials said.
Chun’s death came a month after his army friend and another ex-president, Roh Tae-woo, who also played a key role in the coup, died at age 88. Roh succeeded Chun as president by winning a democratic election in 1987, which was considered the start of South Korea’s transition to democracy following decades of military-backed dictatorships.
Chun was an army major general when he seized power in December 1979 with his military cronies. Tanks and troops rolled into Seoul in a coup that came less than two months after his mentor, President Park Chung-hee, was assassinated by his own intelligence chief during a late-night drinking party after a harsh 18-year rule.
Chun quickly consolidated his power by launching a deadly crackdown on a civil uprising in Gwangju, then spelled Kwangju. His government also imprisoned tens of thousands of students and others, saying it was rooting out social evils. Government records show the military attack on Gwangju resulted in the deaths of about 200 people, but activists say far more civilians died.
Chun’s military tribunal arrested prominent opposition leader Kim Dae-jung and sentenced him to death for allegedly fomenting the Gwangju uprising. After the United States intervened, Kim’s sentence was reduced and he was later freed. Kim later became president and won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to promote democracy in South Korea and reconcile with rival North Korea.
Despite political oppression, South Korea’s economy boomed during Chun’s tenure. He introduced several liberalising measures, including an end to a Korean War-era curfew and an easing of restrictions on overseas trips. To get Washington’s endorsement of his military-backed government, he reportedly dropped Park Chung-hee’s purported plan to develop atomic bombs and longer-range missiles.
Chun sought reconciliation with North Korea by seeking summit talks with then-leader Kim Il Sung, the late grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un. He also approved exchanges of visits by families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War and accepted a rare offer of flood aid from North Korea.
North Korea, however, repeatedly challenged South Korea during Chun’s rule. In 1983, North Korean commandos triggered a bomb that targeted Chun during a visit to Myanmar. Chun narrowly escaped injury in the attack, which killed 21 people, including several South Korean government ministers. In 1987, North Korean agents bombed a South Korean airliner, killing all 115 people on board.
At home, public anger over his dictatorship and human rights abuses led to massive street protests in 1987, forcing Chun to accept a constitutional revision to introduce direct presidential elections.
Roh, the governing party candidate, won a hotly contested December 1987 election, largely due to a splitting of the vote between liberal opposition candidates Kim Dae-jung and his chief rival, Kim Yong-sam.
During Roh’s presidency, Chun took refuge for two years in a Buddhist temple in the face of massive public criticism. After Roh left office in 1993, Kim Yong-sam became president and had both Chun and Roh stand trial as part of a reform drive. The two ex-presidents were convicted of mutiny and treason over the coup and the Gwangju crackdown, as well as corruption. Chun was sentenced to death and Roh to 22 1/2 years in prison.
Those sentences were later reduced by the Supreme Court. Kim Young-sam pardoned the two former presidents in late 1997 at the request of then President-elect Kim Dae-jung, who sought greater national reconciliation to revive the economy, hit by an Asian foreign exchange crisis.
Chun never apologised over the Gwangju crackdown. In August, he appeared at a Gwangju court to defend himself against charges that he defamed a now-deceased Catholic priest who had testified that Chun’s troops shot at protesters from helicopters in Gwangju. Chun left the court after 20 minutes, complaining of breathing problems. In his memoir, Chun called the priest “a shameless liar.”
Chun “should have cooperated with the truth-finding efforts, expressed remorse and offered an apology, not only to Gwangju citizens, but to all of our people,” Jo O-seop, a governing party lawmaker from Gwangju, told reporters Tuesday. “I mean, just think about all the bad things he has done.”
Chun has often been compared with Roh, who had been bedridden for 10 years before his death and whose son repeatedly apologised over the crackdown and visited a Gwangju cemetery to pay respects to victims on behalf of his father.
Both Roh and Chun were earlier ordered by a court to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars they collected illegally. Roh paid back his share but Chun didn’t do so.
When Roh died in October, there was a rare outpouring of public sympathy for him along with positive reviews of his achievements in office, such as forging diplomatic ties with many Communist countries and allowing greater political criticism. Politicians and other high-profile figures paid respects to Roh before the government held a public funeral for him. However, local governments in several provinces and cities, including Gwangju, refused to lower flags to half-staff or set up memorial altars for Roh.
No state-organised funeral or public condolences are expected for Chun. A senior presidential official said after Roh’s death that it wasn’t worth even examining the need for a similar government-organised funeral for Chun.