Mon. Dec 6th, 2021

Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, whose iron fist rule over the country sparked massive democratic protests following a military coup in 1979, has died at the age of 90, his former press assistant said.

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

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 lenient death sentence.

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

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

“I am sure I will take the same action if the same situation arises,” Chun told the court.

Chun was executed after leaving his office in 1987, accused of ordering the military repression of student protesters in 1980 that left thousands dead. [File: AP Photo]

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

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

“In terms of the most powerful organizations under the Park Chung-hee presidency, it surprised me how easily (Chun) gained control over them and how skillfully he utilized the circumstances. In a moment, he seemed to have grown into a giant, “Park Jun-kwang, Chun’s subordinate, later told journalist Cho Gab-je during the coup.

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

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

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

At what local media called the “trial of the century”, he and Roh were convicted of mutiny, high treason and bribery. Judges said in their ruling that Chun’s rise to power was “through illegal means that caused enormous damage to the people”.

Thousands of students were allegedly 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, appeared in court in 1996 to hear a reduction in their original sentences for mutiny, high treason and bribery. [File: Reuters]

Roh was sentenced to a long prison term while Chun was sentenced to death. However, it was overturned 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.

Both men were pardoned and released from prison 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 national outrage in 2003 when he claimed total assets of 291,000 won ($ 245) in cash, two dogs and some household appliances – while he owed about 220.5 billion won ($ 185.6 million) in fines. It was later found that she had four children and other family members owning large tracts of land in Seoul and luxury villas in the United States.

Chun’s family promised to pay off most of its debt in 2013, but as of December 2020, its unpaid fines still amounted to about $ 100 billion ($ 84.2 million).

In 2020, Chun was convicted and received a suspended sentence of eight months for defaming a late democracy activist and Catholic priest in his 2017 memoirs. Prosecutors appealed, and Chun faced a trial next week.

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