Former South Korean military dictator Chun Doo-hwan dies at 90

The former military commander was put on trial over the 1980 crackdown on student protesters that left

Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan has died at the age of 90 [File: Yonhap via Reuters]

Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, whose iron-fisted rule of the country following a 1979 military coup triggered massive democracy protests, has died at the age of 90, his former press aide said.

Chun, whose health had deteriorated recently, died at his Seoul home early in the morning, former press secretary Min Chung-ki told reporters. His body will be moved to a hospital for a funeral later in the day.

A former military commander, Chun presided over the 1980 Gwangju army massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators, a crime for which he was later convicted and received a commuted death sentence.

His death came about a month after that of former president and coup comrade Roh Tae-woo, who played a crucial but controversial role in the country’s troubled transition to democracy.

An aloof, ramrod-straight Chun during his mid-1990s trial defended the coup as necessary to save the nation from a political crisis and denied sending troops into Gwangju.

“I am sure that I would take the same action, if the same situation arose,” Chun told the court.

Chun was put on trial after leaving office in 1987, accused of ordering the military crackdown on student protesters in 1980 that left thousands dead [File: AP Photo]

Chun was born on March 6, 1931, in Yulgok-myeon, a poor farming town in the southeastern county of Hapcheon, when Korea was a Japanese colony.

He joined the military after school, working his way up the ranks until he was made a commander in 1979. Taking charge of the investigation into the assassination of President Park Chung-hee that year, Chun courted key military allies and gained control of South Korea’s intelligence agencies to lead a December 12 coup.

“In front of the most powerful organisations under the Park Chung-hee presidency, it surprised me how easily (Chun) gained control over them and how skilfully he took advantage of the circumstances. In an instant he seemed to have grown into a giant,” Park Jun-kwang, Chun’s subordinate during the coup later told journalist Cho Gab-je.

Chun’s eight-year rule in the presidential Blue House was characterised by brutality and political repression, even as economic prosperity grew.

Chun resigned from office amid a nationwide student-led call for democracy in 1987.

In 1995, he was charged with mutiny and treason, and was arrested after refusing to appear at the prosecutors’ office and fleeing to his hometown.

At what local media dubbed the “trial of the century”, he and Roh were found guilty of mutiny, treason and bribery. In their verdict, judges said Chun’s rise to power came “through illegal means which inflicted enormous damage on the people”.

Thousands of students are believed to have been killed at Gwangju, according to testimonies by survivors, former military officers and investigators.

Former South Korean presidents Roh Tae-woo (left) and Chun Doo-hwan (right), dressed in prison uniforms, appearing in court in 1996 to hear a reduction in their original sentences for mutiny, treason and bribery [File: Reuters]

Roh was given a lengthy jail term while Chun was sentenced to death. However, that was commuted by the Seoul High Court in recognition of Chun’s role in the fast-paced economic development of the Asian “Tiger” economy and the peaceful transfer of the presidency to Roh in 1988.

Both men were pardoned and freed from jail in 1997 by President Kim Young-sam, in what he called an effort to promote “national unity”.

Chun made several returns to the spotlight. He caused a national furor in 2003 when he claimed total assets of 291,000 won ($245) of cash, two dogs and some home appliances – while owing some 220.5 billion won ($185.6m) in fines. His four children and other relatives were later found to own large swaths of land in Seoul and luxurious villas in the United States.

Chun’s family in 2013 vowed to pay off the bulk of his debt, but his unpaid fines still totalled some 100 billion won ($84.2m) as of December 2020.

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 had faced a trial next week.

Source: Reuters