Former South Korean president, Chun Doo-hwan, who presided over the infamous Gwanju massacre during his iron-fisted eight-year rule, has died aged 90.
Chun had multiple myeloma, a blood cancer which was in remission, and his health had deteriorated recently, his former press secretary Min Chung-ki told reporters. He passed away at his Seoul home early in the morning and his body will be moved to a hospital for a funeral later in the day.
A former military commander, Chun oversaw the 1980 Gwangju 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 another former president and his coup comrade Roh Tae-woo, who played a crucial but controversial role in the country’s troubled transition to democracy, died at age 88.
Aloof and ramrod-straight, Chun defended the coup at his mid-90s trial 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 born on 6 March 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, Chun courted key military allies and gained control of South Korea’s intelligence agencies to headline a coup in the December.
“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. It was, however, also marked by growing 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 appear at the prosecutors’ office and fleeing to his home town.
At what local media dubbed the “trial of the century”, he and coup co-conspirator and successor as president, Roh Tae-Woo, 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 were believed to have been killed at Gwangju, according to testimonies by survivors, former military officers and investigators.
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 then-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 furore in 2003 when he claimed total assets of 291,000 won ($245) of cash, two dogs and some home appliances – while owing 220.5 billion won 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.