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PoliticsSouth Korea

Chun Doo-hwan: Ex-South Korea dictator dies aged 90

November 23, 2021

The former military strongman received a commuted death sentence in 1996 for his brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests after he seized power in a coup.

Former South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan, standing outside the walls of Anyang Prison
Chun Doo-hwan was convicted of treason over the deadly suppression of pro-democracy protests in Gwangju Image: Paul Barker/REUTERS

Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan has died at the age of 90, officials confirmed Tuesday.

Chun was suffering from multiple myeloma, a blood cancer which was in remission. He passed away at his Seoul home, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.

The former general took power in a coup in 1979 and ruled until 1988. He was later convicted over the 1980 Gwangju massacre of pro-democracy protesters and sentenced to death. However, he later received a pardon in a drive for national reconcilliation.

Chun Doo-hwan's rise and fall

Born in the farming town of Yulgok-myeon in the southeastern county of Hapcheon during Japanese rule, he joined the military straight out of high school.

He rapidly rose through the ranks and as army commander in 1979, led the investigation into the assassination of his mentor, President Park Chung-hee.

By the end of that same year he had organized a coup after taking control of the intelligence services.

"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 said in a later interview.

Given the nature of his rise to power, he ruled with an iron fist.

But Chun also brought South Korea economic wealth, even managing to bring the Olympics to Seoul in 1988.

He stepped down as head of the Democratic Justice Party in 1987 following huge pressure from a student-led democratic movement. Following December elections, the first in two decades, he handed over the presidency to Roh Tae-woo in February 1988.

Trial, death sentence and decline

In what local media called the "trial of the century", Chun and Roh were tried for mutiny, treason and bribery in 1995 for their roles in the seizure of power and the Gwangju crackdown.

In the months following the coup, thousands of residents and students began protests in the southwestern city. Chun imposed martial law and oversaw a bloody 10-day suppression of what he called a "riot."

Around 200 people were left dead or missing. Activists say the toll was much higher.

But Chun remained defiant on trial. 

"I am sure that I would take the same action, if the same situation arose," he told the court.

Former South Korean president Chun Doo Hwan stuck by his actions until the endImage: YNA/dpa/picture alliance

Judges found Chun came to power "through illegal means which inflicted enormous damage on the people" and sentenced him to death.

He was pardoned and freed from prison in 1997, but ordered to return 220 billion won ($190 million; €169 million) in funds the Supreme Court ruled he had misappropriated.

A court then ruled in 2020 he had defamed a dead democracy activist and Catholic priest in a 2017 account of his memoirs. He received an eight-month suspended sentence for the slur.

jc/rt (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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