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

SEOUL (Reuters) – Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, whose iron-fisted rule over the country following a 1979 military coup sparked massive protests for democracy, died on Tuesday at the age of 90, his former press secretary said.
Chun suffered from multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood in remission, and his health had deteriorated recently, his former press secretary Min Chung-ki told reporters. He died at his Seoul home early in the morning and his body will be taken to hospital for a funeral later in the day.
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 given a commuted death sentence.
His death came about a month after another former president and his coup comrade Roh Tae-woo, who played a crucial but controversial role in the country’s difficult transition to democracy, died in the age 88.
During his trial in the mid-1990s, a distant, right-handed Chun defended the coup as necessary to save the nation from a political crisis and denied sending troops to Gwangju.
“I’m sure I would take the same action if the same situation happened,” Chun told the court.
Chun was born on March 6, 1931 in Yulgok-myeon, a poor farming town in southeastern Hapcheon County, during Japanese rule over Korea.
He joined the military right out of high school, climbing the ranks until he was appointed commander in 1979. Taking charge of the investigation into the assassination of President Park Chung-hee that year, Chun courted key military allies and seized control of South Korean intelligence agencies in a December 12 coup.
“In front of the most powerful organizations under Park Chung-hee’s presidency, I was surprised at how easily (Chun) took control of them and how skillfully 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 reporter Cho Gab-je.
Chun’s eight-year reign in the presidential Blue House was characterized by brutality and political repression. But it has also been marked by increasing economic prosperity.
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, treason, and was arrested after refusing to report to the prosecutor’s office and fleeing to his hometown.
In what local media dubbed the “trial of the century,” he and the coup co-conspirator and successor to President Roh Tae-Woo were convicted of mutiny, treason and corruption. In their verdict, the judges declared that Chun’s coming to power was “by illegal means which caused enormous damage to the people.”
Thousands of students were reportedly killed in Gwangju, according to testimonies from survivors, former military officers and investigators.
Roh was sentenced to a long prison term while Chun was sentenced to death. However, this was commuted by the Seoul High Court in recognition of Chun’s role in the rapid economic development of the Asian “Tiger” economy and the peaceful transfer of the presidency to Roh in 1988.
The two were pardoned and released from prison in 1997 by President Kim Young-sam, in what he called an effort to promote “national unity.”
Chun has made several comebacks in the limelight. He sparked national fury in 2003 when he claimed total assets of 291,000 won ($ 245) in cash, two dogs and a few household appliances – while owing some 220.5 billion won in fines. Her four children and other family members later turned out to own vast tracts of land in Seoul and luxurious villas in the United States.
Chun’s family pledged in 2013 to repay most of their debt, but their outstanding fines still amounted to some 100 billion won as of December 2020.
In 2020, Chun was convicted and given an eight-month suspended prison sentence for defaming a former democracy activist and Catholic priest in his 2017 memoir. Prosecutors appealed and Chun went to trial next week.
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