Former South Korean president dies at 88 – NBC Chicago

Former South Korean President Roh Tae-woo, a major player in the 1979 coup who later became president in a landmark democratic election before ending his tumultuous political career in prison, died Tuesday at the Seoul Capital Hospital. He was 88 years old.

Roh, who ruled South Korea as president from 1988 to 1993, died of complications from various illnesses after his condition worsened while suffering from a degenerative disease, Kim Yon-su said, director of Seoul National University Hospital at a press conference.

Roh played a key role in the December 1979 military coup that made his army friend and coup leader Chun Doo-hwan president after their mentor, dictator Park Chung-hee, was assassinated after 18 years of reign.

Roh led his army division in Seoul and joined other military leaders in operations to capture the capital. The following year, Chun’s army and other coup plotters launched a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the southern town of Gwangju, killing around 200 people, in one of the darkest moments of the year. South Korea’s turbulent modern history.

Roh was Chun’s hand-picked successor, which would have secured him the presidency in an easy indirect election. But a massive pro-democracy uprising in 1987 forced Roh and Chun to accept a direct presidential election that was seen as the start of South Korea’s transition to democracy.

Despite his military background, Roh forged a moderate and sympathetic image during the campaign, calling himself an “average person.” He eventually won the hotly contested December 1987 election, largely due to a split in the liberal votes between opposition candidates Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, both of whom later became presidents.

During his five-year tenure, Roh aggressively continued his relations with communist nations as part of his “northward diplomacy” as communism fell in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union dissolved.

South Korea was then deeply anti-Communist due to its rivalry with North Korea, but under Roh it first opened diplomatic relations with a Communist nation – Hungary in 1989, the year the Wall of Berlin fell and communism collapsed across Eastern Europe.

Roh’s government established relations with the Soviet Union in 1990 and with China in 1992. Relations with North Korea improved under Roh, with both sides having their first-ever talks with prime ministers, adopting a historic joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and join the United Nations at the same time.

Previously, Roh had overseen the organization of the 1988 Seoul Summer Games, the last Cold War-era Olympics that showed how South Korea had rebuilt itself from the ashes of the Korean War. from 1950-1953. North Korea boycotted the 1988 games.

Relations between the two Koreas have since seen ups and downs. Despite numerous denuclearization commitments – including one made during Roh’s presidency – North Korea still maintains its nuclear weapons program, which it sees as a means of survival.

In domestic politics, Roh was seen by many as lacking in charismatic and aggressive leadership. His nickname, “Mul (Water) Tae-woo”, implied that his administration had neither color nor taste. He still brought more openness by allowing more political criticism, unlike his authoritarian predecessors, Park and Chun. The governments led by Park and Chun have often used security laws to suppress political opponents and restrict speech under the pretext of guarding against civil unrest and North Korean threats.

After his successor, Kim Young-sam, investigated the coup and the military crackdown, Roh was arrested, found guilty of mutiny, treason and bribery and was sentenced to 22 years and six months in prison. Chun was sentenced to death.

The Supreme Court reduced those sentences to life imprisonment for Chun and 17 years for Roh. After spending approximately two years in prison, Roh and Chun were released in late 1997 under a special pardon requested by then-president-elect Kim Dae-jung, who sought national reconciliation amid a crisis. Asian financial.

Roh had remained out of public view most of the time after his release from prison, refraining from political activities and speeches. In recent years, he has suffered from prostate cancer, asthma, cerebellar atrophy and other health problems.

Last April, her daughter, Roh So-young, wrote on Facebook that her father had been bedridden for 10 years without being able to speak or move his body. She said her father sometimes made eye gestures to communicate, but seemed to “have a teary face” when he didn’t express his feelings and thoughts properly.

Roh’s son Roh Jae-heon has repeatedly apologized for the 1980 crackdown and visited a cemetery in Gwangju to pay respect to the victims buried there on behalf of his bedridden father.

But unlike Roh’s family, Chun, who is said to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and blood cancer, has yet to apologize for the crackdown.

Last August, Chun appeared in a court in Gwangju to defend himself against charges he defamed a now-deceased Catholic priest who testified that he saw Chun’s troops shoot protesters from helicopters in Gwangju. Chun left the field after 20 minutes, complaining of breathing problems. In his memoir, Chun called the priest a “shameless liar”.

Roh and Chun were both ordered by a court to repay hundreds of millions of dollars they illegally collected. Roh repaid his shares but Chun did not, according to South Korean media.

Roh is survived by his wife and two children.


Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung and former AP writer Sam Kim contributed to this report.

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