SEOUL, Oct. 26 (Korea Bizwire) — Roh Tae-woo, South Korea’s last general-turned-president who played a key role in a 1979 coup before winning election through a direct vote at the start of South Korea’s democratization, died Tuesday, aides said. He was 88.
Roh, who served as president from 1988-93, was recently admitted to a hospital after his health deteriorated but failed to recover, they said.
The former president received surgery for prostate cancer in 2002 and was frequently admitted to hospitals while living at his residence in Seoul. He also suffered from cerebellar atrophy and asthma, which together kept him largely out of the public eye.
Seoul National University Hospital President Kim Yon-su said Roh’s death appears to have resulted from a mixture of various chronic ailments, including multiple system atrophy.
Later in the day, the bereaved family made public his last message asking for forgiveness for his “faults” — an apparent reference to his much-criticized role in a 1979 military coup and a bloody crackdown on a pro-democracy uprising in the southern city of Gwangju the following year.
“I made my own best efforts but now sincerely ask for forgiveness for my shortcomings and faults,” he was quoted by his family as saying.
“I feel very grateful and honored to have humbly accepted my destiny and served the great Republic of Korea and the people,” he added.
The late president also expressed his wish for future generations to be able to realize national reunification, a goal that eluded him, his family said.
The former Army general rose to prominence after helping Chun Doo-hwan seize power through a 1979 military coup in the wake of a political vacuum created by the death of former authoritarian President Park Chung-hee.
Roh, who was the commander of the 9th Army division at the time, belonged to the same class of the Korea Military Academy as Chun.
Under Chun, Roh served as the sports and interior ministers as well as a National Assembly member and chief of the then ruling Democratic Justice Party.
In June 1987, he won the party’s presidential nomination and went on to win the election later that year.
Ahead of the election, pro-democracy rallies spread massively across the nation, prompting Roh to accept calls for a direct presidential system in what is known as the “June 29 Declaration.”
He won the election through a direct vote.
In an apparent bid to shed his military image, Roh began his administration under the slogan of opening “an era of ordinary people.”
Roh sought to overcome challenges facing the nation through gradual reform measures, but was dealt a blow by the ruling party’s defeat in parliamentary elections two months after his inauguration.
To increase its size in parliament, the ruling party formed a coalition with two opposition parties in 1990, but the partnership was fraught with factional infighting, undermining Roh’s grip on state affairs.
As a result, the former president experienced an early lame duck period beginning in the middle of his term and earned the nickname “Water Tae-woo” for his lack of resolve.
Still, he has been credited with building ties with socialist states and promoting inter-Korean exchanges during his term.
In 1991, South and North Korea were simultaneously admitted to the United Nations. South Korea also established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1990 and China in 1992.
Roh oversaw Seoul’s hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympics, which was deemed a success.
Inter-Korean relations improved with the first high-level inter-Korean talks in September 1989 and the 1991 adoption of the Basic Agreement that established the principle of non-aggression between the sides.
In December 1991, the Koreas signed a denuclearization agreement under which all testing, manufacturing and other processes involving nuclear weapons were banned.
To fulfill the agreement, all nuclear warheads were removed from U.S. military bases in South Korea.
In 1996, Roh and Chun were convicted of corruption and mutiny for their role in the 1979 military coup and in the brutal crackdown on the 1980 pro-democracy uprising in the southwestern city of Gwangju.
Roh was sentenced to 17 years in prison and around 260 billion won (US$223 million) in fines. He was pardoned in 1997 under the government of then-President Kim Young-sam and belatedly paid his fines in full in 2013.
Roh was born on Dec. 4, 1932 in what is now Daegu, 302 kilometers southeast of Seoul, as the first son of a local government clerk.
He is survived by his wife, former first lady Kim Ok-suk, and a daughter and son. Roh’s daughter is currently undergoing divorce proceedings with SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won.