Former South Korean Military Dictator Chun Doo-hwan Dies at 90

SEOUL (Reuters) -

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

A former military commander, Chun 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.

An aloof, ramrod-straight Chun 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,” Chun told the court.

Chun was born on March 6, 1931, in Yulgok-myeon, a poor farming town in the southeastern 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.

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 hometown.

At what local media dubbed the “trial of the century,” he and Roh 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 President Kim Young-sam, in what he called an effort to promote “national unity.”

In 2020 Chun was found guilty and received an eight-month suspended sentence for defaming a late democracy activist and Catholic priest in his 2017 memoirs. Prosecutors have appealed, and Chun had faced a trial next week.