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

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

Mr Chun, a former military commander, 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.

He died at his home in Seoul early in the morning and his body was moved to a hospital for a funeral later in the day.

Mr Chun was suffering from multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, and his health had deteriorated recently, his former press secretary Min Chung-ki told reporters.

President Moon Jae-in's office offered condolences to Mr Chun's family but expressed regret over his failure to reveal the truth and provide apologies about the coup. It had no plan to send flowers or an official to his funeral home, said Mr Moon's spokesman.

Mr Chun's death came about a month after coup co-conspirator and succeeding president Roh Tae-woo, who played a crucial but controversial role in the country's troubled transition to democracy, died at age 88.

An aloof, ramrod-straight Mr Chun had, 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," he told the court.

Mr Chun was born on March 6, 1931, in Yulgok-myeon, a poor farming town in the south-eastern county of Hapcheon, during Japanese rule over Korea.

He joined the military straight out of high school, working his way 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, Mr Chun courted key military allies and gained control of South Korea's intelligence agencies to headline a Dec 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, Mr Chun's subordinate during the coup, later told journalist Cho Gab-je.

Mr Chun's eight-year rule in the presidential Blue House was characterised by brutality and political repression. It was, however, also marked by growing economic prosperity. Mr Chun resigned from office amid a nationwide student-led democratic movement in 1987 demanding a direct electoral system.

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 media dubbed the "trial of the century", he and Mr Roh were found guilty of mutiny, treason and bribery.

In their verdict, judges said Mr Chun's rise to power came "through illegal means which inflicted enormous damage on the people". Thousands of students were believed to have been killed at Gwangju, according to testimonies by survivors, former military officers and investigators.

Both men were pardoned and freed from jail in 1997 by president Kim Young-sam, in what he called a bid to promote "national unity".

An association of survivors' groups said at a news conference yesterday that it was lamentable that Mr Chun died without apologising for the coup and Gwangju "massacre", vowing to continue seeking the truth and "justice of history".


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2021, with the headline Former South Korean military dictator Chun Doo-hwan dies at 90. Subscribe