(SEOUL, South Korea) — Former South Korean military strongman Chun Doo-hwan, who took power in a 1979 coup and brutally crushed pro-democracy protests before going to prison for misdeeds in office, died on Tuesday. He was 90.
Chun was declared dead at home by emergency officials. Chun was earlier reported to have suffered cardiac arrest by police. Emergency personnel were rushed to Chun’s Seoul residence.
Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were killed and tens of thousands were imprisoned during Chun’s presidency in the 1980s, but he allowed some liberalization after years of authoritarian rule. Under public pressure, he allowed the first direct and free election in the nation’s history.
Following massive criticism from his 1988 resignation, Chun sought shelter for two years at a Buddhist temple. He was then arrested. He was convicted for corruption, murder and treason. In 1997, in an effort to promote national reconciliation, he received pardon.
When Chun seized power with military friends in December 1979, he was an army general. In a coup, troops and tanks rolled into Seoul less than two months following the assassination of his mentor President Park Chunghee at a late-night drinking event.
His power was quickly solidified by Chun’s suppression of a civil revolt in Gwangju, which at the time was referred to as Kwangju. In addition to imprisoning tens and thousands of students, his government claimed it was fighting social evil.
Official records indicate that about 200 people died as a result of the military’s crackdown in Gwangju. Activists, however, say far more civilians died. Chun’s military tribunal arrested opposition leader Kim Dae-jung and sentenced him to death for allegedly fomenting the Gwangju uprising.
After the United States intervened, Kim’s sentence was reduced and he was later freed.
South Korea’s economy boomed during Chun’s tenure. South Korea also hosted the 1986 Asian Games, and was awarded the right to host the 1988 Summer Olympics. This took place after Chun left office.
Chun introduced several liberalizing steps, including the lifting of restrictions on foreign travel and ending of the Korean War-era curfew. To get Washington’s endorsement of his military-backed government, he reportedly dropped plans to develop atomic bombs and longer-range missiles.
Chun sought to reconcile with North Korea and requested summit talks with Kim Il Sung (the late grandfather of the current leader Kim Jong Un). Also, he approved visits from families that were separated during the Korean War. He also accepted an offer for flood aid by North Korea.
North Korea, however, repeatedly challenged South Korea during Chun’s rule. A bomb attack on Chun in 1983 was triggered by North Korean commandos. It occurred during Chun’s visit to Myanmar. The attack that killed 21 people and injured several South Korean ministers left Chun barely surviving. North Korean agents killed all 115 onboard a South Korean plane in 1987.
Domestic demonstrations, anger at human rights abuses in the indirect presidential election system and public protests led Chun to accept a constitutional change for a direct electoral system.
Roh Tae-woo, Chun’s army colleague who assisted during his coup, won the 1987 election, largely thanks to a vote split among liberal opposition candidates.
There have been calls for Chun’s punishment for human rights violations and corruption.
Kim Yongsam, a former pro-democracy activist, was elected president in 1993. He had Chun and Roh tried as part of a reform drive.
They were both convicted for mutiny as well as treason in relation to the Gwangju crackdown. Chun was executed, while Roh was sent to 22 1/2 year imprisonment.
The Supreme Court later reduced those sentences. Kim Pardoned Two Former Presidents at the Request of Kim Dae-jung (the once-incarcerated activist who wanted national reconciliation and the recovery of an economy that was hit by the Asian foreign currency crisis).
Roh passed away last month, aged 88, from complications related to various illnesses.
A court order was issued to Chun before he was freed. It required him to return $190million he’d amassed through a slush funds during his rule. After claiming he was poor, Chun returned only part of the money. In 2013, his family stated that it would pay out $190 million in real estate, paintings, and other assets.
Kim Tong-hyung (Associated Press) contributed to the report.