Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, whose country was largely opposed to democracy after a 1979 military coup, died Tuesday at the age of 90, his former press aide said.
His former press secretary Min Chung-ki told reporters that Chun had multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, which was recovering and that his health had recently deteriorated. He died early in the morning at his home in Seoul and later in the day his body was taken to a hospital for last rites.
A former military commander, Chun presided over the 1980 Gwangju Army massacre of pro-democracy protesters, a crime for which he was later convicted and sentenced to death.
His death came nearly a month after coup co-conspirator and succeeding President Roh Tae-woo, who played a key but controversial role in the country’s turbulent transition to democracy, died at the age of 88.
During his trial in the mid-1990s, a different, straight-up Chun defended the coup needed to save the country from a political crisis and denied sending troops to Gwangju.
Chun told the court, “I am sure that if the same situation arises, I will take the same action.”
Chun was born on March 6, 1931, in Yulgok-myeon, a poor peasant town in southeastern County Hapcheon, during the Japanese rule of Korea.
He joined the Army straight out of high school, working up the ranks until he was appointed a commander in 1979. Taking charge of the investigation into the assassination of President Park Chung-hee that year, Chun obtained major military allies and gained control. South Korea’s intelligence agencies prepared the headline of the December 12 coup.
“In the face of the most powerful organizations under the Park Chung-hee Presidency, it surprised me how easily (Chun) regained control of them and how skillfully he took advantage of circumstances. In an instant it seemed that he has grown into a giant,” Park Joon-kwang, Chun’s subordinate during the coup, later told journalist Cho Gab-jae.
Chun’s eight-year rule at the Presidential Blue House was characterized by brutality and political repression. However, it was also marked by increasing economic prosperity.
Chun resigned from office in 1987 amid a nationwide student-led democratic movement demanding a direct electoral system.
In 1995, he was charged with rebellion, treason, and arrested after refusing to appear at the prosecutor’s office and fleeing to his hometown.
In what local media described as the “test of the century”, he and Roh were found guilty of rebellion, sedition and bribery. In their ruling, the judges said that Chun’s rise to power was “through illegal means that caused great harm to the people”.
According to testimony from survivors, former military officers and investigators, thousands of students are believed to have been killed in Gwangju.
Roh was given a long prison sentence while Chun was sentenced to death. However, this was downplayed by the Seoul High Court in recognition of Chun’s role in the rapid economic growth of the Asian “tiger” economy and the peaceful transfer of the presidency to Roh in 1988.
Both men were pardoned and freed from prison by President Kim Young-sam in 1997 in what he called an attempt to promote “national unity”.
A union of survivors’ groups said at a news conference on Tuesday that it was sad that Chun died without apologizing for the coup and the Gwangju “genocide”, vowing to continue to seek the truth and “the justice of history”.
Chun made several comebacks to the limelight. He caused a national uproar in 2003, when he claimed a total of 291,000 won ($245) in cash, two dogs and some household equipment – while winning nearly 220.5 billion in fines. Later his four children and other relatives were found to have large land in Seoul and luxurious villas in the United States.
In 2013, Chun’s family vowed to pay off the bulk of their debt, but their outstanding fines still amounted to about $100 billion won as of last December. The city of Seoul said last week that they had won more than 980 million in taxes owed.
In 2020, Chun was found guilty and received an eight-month suspended sentence for defaming a late democracy activist and Catholic priest in his 2017 memoirs. Prosecutors have appealed, and Chun was to face trial the following week.
Min said Chun had wished for the funeral and burial to take place near the border with North Korea, but his family would make the final decision when his youngest son, Min, is living in the United States, Min said.
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