Chun Doo-hwan obituary: Vilified former military dictator of South Korea

Leader in 1980s seized power in coup and ruled country with iron fist

Chun Doo-hwan
Born: March 6th, 1931
Died: November 23rd, 2021

Chun Doo-hwan, South Korea’s most vilified former military dictator, who seized power in a coup and ruled his country with an iron fist for most of the 1980s, dispatching paratroopers and armoured vehicles to mow down hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, died Tuesday at his home in Seoul, South Korea. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by South Korea’s national police agency.

In 1996, eight years after he left office, Chun was sentenced to death on sedition and mutiny charges stemming from his role in the 1979 coup that brought him to power and the massacre of demonstrators at the southwestern city of Gwangju the following year. But he was pardoned in 1997 in a gesture of reconciliation, shortly after Kim Dae-jung, a former dissident whom Chun’s military junta had once condemned to death, was elected president.


Chun, who ruled from 1979 until early 1988, was also convicted of collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from wealthy, politically connected families known as chaebol whose businesses expanded into conglomerates with the help of tax cuts and other government favours.

His government also overcame huge odds against Japan, its historical enemy, to win the right to host the 1988 Olympics

Unapologetic to the end, Chun was the last to die among South Korea’s three military general-turned presidents.

As an army captain, he took part in Maj Gen Park Chung-hee’s coup in 1961, a move that secured his place in Park’s military elite. When Park’s 18-year dictatorship abruptly ended with his assassination in 1979, Chun, by then a major general himself, staged his own coup to usurp control. He later hand-picked his friend Roh Tae-woo, also a former general, as his successor. Roh, president from 1988 to 1993, died in October.

During the three generals’ combined rule of 32 years, South Korea rose from the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean War to become one of Asia’s Tiger economies, overtaking rival North Korea in industrial output and national income. While Chun was in office, South Korea tamed its chronic inflation, and its economy was among the world’s fastest growing, expanding an average 10 per cent a year.

His government also overcame huge odds against Japan, its historical enemy, to win the right to host the 1988 Olympics, widely seen as a coming-out party for the once war-torn nation.

But Chun is mostly remembered as a dictator.

“Among South Koreans, his name is synonymous with a tyrannical military dictator,” said Choi Jin, director of the Institute for Presidential Leadership in Seoul. “His positive achievements are far outweighed by his negative legacies — the illegitimate way he came to power and the dictatorial streak that ran through his term.”

Chun Doo-hwan was born on January 18th, 1931, to a farming family in Hapcheon in what is now southern South Korea. Korea was a colony of Japan at the time.

While his father, Chun Sang-woo, ran from debt collectors and Japanese police officers (after pushing one off a cliff), his mother, Kim Jeom-mun, had high expectations for Doo-hwan, one of four sons. When a Buddhist fortuneteller predicted that her three protruding frontal teeth would block the boy’s path to glory, she rushed into her kitchen and yanked them out with a pair of tongs, according to “Chun Doo-hwan: Man of Destiny,” an authorised biography published after his coup.

After finishing vocational high school, Doo-hwan gave up going to college because he could not pay tuition. Instead, he joined the Korea Military Academy, where he practised boxing and captained its soccer team as a goalie. (As president, he used to call the head coach of South Korea’s national soccer team in the middle of a match to dictate game strategy.)

Chun was head of the military’s intelligence command in late 1979 when Park was assassinated by the director of KCIA, his spy agency, during a drinking party. Chun and his army friends — mostly officers like Roh who hailed from his home province in the southeast — arrested Gen Jeong Seung-hwa, their boss and martial-law commander and the army chief of staff, and moved their troops into Seoul to complete a largely bloodless coup.

“It was a dirty rebellion that served no other purpose than to satisfy Chun Doo-hwan’s personal greed,” Jeong said later. He said Chun’s cronies had flogged and waterboarded him to extract a false confession that he had been complicit in Park’s assassination.

Chun placed the country under a martial law, closing parliament and universities and detaining prominent dissidents, including the two main opposition leaders, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. In May 1980, people in Gwangju, Kim Dae-jung’s political home base, rose up in protest, chanting, “Down with Chun Doo-hwan!”

Troops moved in, wielding batons and bayonets and opening fire. Some protesters armed themselves with weapons stolen from police stations. The crackdown cost at least 191 lives by official count, including 26 soldiers and police officers. Victims’ families said the death toll was much higher.

Chun’s military junta later sentenced Kim Dae-jung to death on a false charge of instigating the Gwangju uprising at the behest of North Korea.

“The incident was an outrage and a tragedy that was to profoundly shape the thinking of an entire generation of young people in Korea, making many of them extremely critical of the United States,” David Straub, a former American diplomat who served in South Korea at the time, wrote in his 2015 book Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea.

Deeply unpopular, Chun wanted his hand-picked successor, Roh, elected by the same rubber-stamp electoral college

To young Koreans, Washington’s perceived failure to stop the Gwangju massacre even though their country had placed its military under operational control of American generals was evidence of betrayal. Later, former US president Ronald Reagan’s “quiet diplomacy” toward Chun’s human rights abuses hardened their belief that Washington had ignored Koreans’ suffering under Chun.

Anti-Americanism among young South Koreans raged into later decades. Student activists raided US diplomatic facilities, setting one on fire. US military bases were plagued by demonstrators shouting, “Yankee, go home!”

Washington said that it had been caught off-guard by Chun’s coup and that none of the forces deployed at Gwangju were under the control of any American authorities. It criticised Chun’s martial law and called for restraint in Gwangju, but the government-controlled South Korean news media reported that the United States had approved Chun’s dispatch of troops there.

Chun “manipulated not only the Korean public but also the United States,” Straub wrote.

Deeply unpopular, Chun wanted his hand-picked successor, Roh, elected by the same rubber-stamp electoral college. But amid massive protests triggered by the death of a tortured student activist, he and Roh acceded to a popular election.

Roh became the country’s first directly elected president in 16 years, thanks largely to the split of opposition votes between the two dissident candidates, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, whose mutual mistrust was as deep as their common hatred of military rule.

Chun tried to appease the public that was calling for his punishment by going into domestic exile in a remote Buddhist monastery. But after Kim Young-sam took power in 1993, he went after Chun, Roh and other former generals once considered untouchable.

In addition to his wife, Chun is survived by their four children, Jae-yong, Hyo-sun, Jae-guk and Jae-man.

In a Supreme Court ruling in 1997, Chun was ordered to return 220 billion won (€170 million) to the state that he had illegally accumulated through bribery. He said he didn’t have enough to pay the fine. Critics accused him of hiding assets in the care of relatives.

Prosecutors have so far collected only half the sum, even though they raided his home to confiscate what they could, including a refrigerator and two dogs. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times