SEOUL, Nov. 23 (Korea Bizwire) — Former President Chun Doo-hwan, a general-turned strongman widely criticized for seizing power through a 1979 military coup and ruthlessly quelling a pro-democracy civil uprising in the southwestern city of Gwangju the following year, died Tuesday at the age of 90.
Chun died at his home in western Seoul around 8:40 a.m. after battling chronic ailments, aides said.
Chun’s last wish was that his remains be buried “on a frontline high ground overlooking North Korean territory,” Min Jeong-ki, a former presidential secretary and aide to Chun, told reporters outside the residence, adding his body will be cremated before being buried at a site to be determined later.
Chun’s body was transferred to Seoul’s Severance Hospital in the afternoon.
The former Army general rose to power after staging a coup in the wake of the assassination of then President Park Chung-hee in 1979 and ruled the country until 1988.
One of his biggest and darkest political legacies is his deadly crackdown on the Gwangju pro-democracy civil uprising in 1980, which left more than 200 dead and 1,800 others wounded, according to conservative official data.
The deceased never apologized for the blood on his hands.
Chun’s death on Tuesday was met with condemnation from civic groups seeking to preserve the history of the country’s democratic movement.
“It is deeply regrettable that (Chun) died without acknowledging his faults,” read a joint statement by the May 18 Memorial Foundation, Korea Democracy Foundation and the BUMA Democratic Uprising Memorial Foundation.
“Chun Doo-hwan didn’t even ask for forgiveness from the people, especially the citizens of Gwangju,” they said.
Cheong Wa Dae expressed regret that Chun died without an apology but offered its prayers for the deceased and comfort to the bereaved family.
Chun “didn’t reveal the truth of history until the end,” presidential spokesperson Park Kyung-mee told reporters, adding Cheong Wa Dae has no plans to send flowers or pay a condolence visit.
The ruling Democratic Party said it will look into appropriate ways to mark Chun’s death but noted the deceased is not eligible for a state funeral or burial at a national cemetery because of his past crimes.
The main opposition People Power Party (PPP) said it does not plan to issue a statement Tuesday on the former president’s death and its presidential nominee, Yoon Seok-youl, will not be visiting a memorial altar for Chun to pay his respects.
Earlier, Yoon came under fire after claiming many people believed Chun “did well in politics,” with the exception of the coup and the bloody crackdown.
Chun was born into a poor family in Hapcheon, South Gyeongsang Province, on Jan. 23, 1931 and entered the Korea Military Academy in 1951.
At the academy, he befriended Roh Tae-woo, who would later become his right-hand man and serve in various capacities during Chun’s administration before being elected president himself and succeeding Chun.
Before becoming president, Chun enjoyed an illustrious career that included a stint at the state spy agency, the Army 1st Special Forces Group, which he headed, and as a member of Park’s presidential security service.
At the time of Park’s assassination in October 1979, Chun was chief of the Defense Security Command and led an investigation into the case.
In December, he took power in a coup staged with Roh’s help.
Chun consolidated power after quelling the uprising in Gwangju in 1980 by launching a supra-constitutional emergency committee and laying out regulations on political activity, which led to the dissolution of parliament and strengthened his grip on power.
The same year he retired from the military after more than 25 years of service and began what would become the most notorious rule in modern Korean history.
He forced the resignation of then acting President Choi Kyu-hah in August 1980, paving the way for his election as president. He was inaugurated in September under the banner of eradicating corruption and political strife, with a particular emphasis on achieving a just society.
After leaving office in 1988, Chun was mired by a series of controversies over his rule, which led him to issue a public apology and pledge to donate his wealth to the nation.
He donated more than 16 billion won (US$13.4 million) in political funds and private wealth before effectively going into exile at a Buddhist temple with his wife, Lee Sun-ja.
During his time in exile, Chun was summoned to testify before the National Assembly and was subject to public humiliation as Roh Moo-hyun, a then lawmaker who later became president, threw a nameplate at him.
Even after returning home at the end of 1990, Chun was dogged by prosecutorial investigations over illegalities committed before and during his time in office, including in the course of the coup and Gwangju crackdown.
He was summoned by the prosecution on charges of treason in December 1995, but he defied the order by reading out a public statement outside his home saying he would not cooperate with the investigation.
A warrant was issued the next day for his arrest, and he was eventually incarcerated at a prison in his hometown of Hapcheon.
In 1996, Chun was convicted of treason, murder for the purpose of treason and bribe-taking, and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court later commuted his sentence to life in prison and a forfeiture of over 220 billion won.
Chun was released from prison in December 1997 after being pardoned by then President Kim Young-sam in the name of national unity.
Until his death, Chun failed to pay the penalty in full. At one point, he claimed his entire wealth consisted of 290,000 won, a remark that was widely criticized for years afterward, especially as he was seen visiting expensive golf clubs.
One of Chun’s trials is still under way, and the last time he was seen in public was when he appeared at a district court in Gwangju in August.
His death comes less than a month after the passing of Roh Tae-woo on Oct. 26.
Despite Roh’s own dark political legacy, the former president was given a five-day state funeral amid public recognition of his efforts to atone for his wrongdoings by expressing remorse through his family.
Chun has been credited by some supporters with bringing prices under control and helping win Seoul’s bid to host the 1988 Summer Olympics, which raised the country’s profile on the international stage.
He is survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter.