Former South Korean president Roh Tae-woo in a file photo. Image: Facebook

SEOUL – Roh Tae-woo, a general who would go on to become Korea’s first democratically elected president after decades of authoritarian rule, died Tuesday aged 88.

Roh died in a Seoul hospital after a long illness and a virtually non-existent public profile for well over a decade.

He was a central, bridging figure in the country’s modern history, for he bestrode two camps. Though has was the third member of a triumvirate of ex-generals who ruled Korea, he also won a landmark, legitimate plebiscite under a one-man, one-vote direct election system and went on to serve a full term as president from 1988 to 1993.

In the presidential Blue House, he oversaw the 1988 Summer Olympics, and subsequently, the opening of South Korea’s diplomatic engagement with ex-communist states.

His greatest tangible legacy is his introduction of a national healthcare service. Some also attribute the surprise rise of SK Telecom, which would become one of the country’s key digital companies, to Roh’s favor.

After ensuring governmental continuity by allying with a former political foe, he hoped to join the circuit of retired global statesmen after leaving office. It was not to be. He only escaped a 17-year prison term for past misdeeds thanks to a presidential pardon. Subsequently, he largely disappeared from public view.

Still, the democratic governance Roh ushered in has proven durable. Any return of the kind of military juntas that ruled South Korea between 1961 and 1987 – the year Roh, himself an ex-junta member who won a dramatic election against a divided opposition – is today unthinkable.

Former presidents Chun Doo-Hwan (front right) and Roh Tae-Woo (next to him) in Seoul Appellate Court with their former army generals in December, 1996, to answer for their role in the Gwangju massacre. Photo: AFP / Chosun Ilbo

Rule of the generals

Any understanding of today’s bright and shiny South Korea must be informed by the country’s turbulent economic and political development under both pre- and post-democratic leaders.

Coincidentally, the day Roh died, October 26, was the exact same day Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979.

Park, an ex-general who seized power in a coup in 1961, is arguably the most important single figure in the country’s post-war development. He is widely seen as the ruler who elevated South Korea from an agrarian backwater to an industrialized tiger economy.

Park provided a model for another general and putschist, Chun Do-hwan, who took power in 1980. Roh was Chun’s right-hand man.

While both Park and Chun navigated Korea’s path to prosperity, they were also iron-knuckled strongmen who retarded democratic practices. Both leave very mixed legacies. That is particularly true of Chun who engineered a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in the city of Gwangju in 1980, leaving over 200 dead. The uprising remains a stain on the national political conscience; Roh was a key general at the time.

In the years following the Gwangju Uprising, student-led pro-democracy protests gathered force against the Seoul regime. Drenched in “Seoul perfume” – a particularly noxious tear gas – the capital’s university districts became battlegrounds, contested by swarms of demonstrators and battalions of samurai-armored riot cops.

In 1987, two students died at the hands of police. That was the final straw. The middle class joined students and “people power” demonstrators flooded the streets. With the 1988 Summer Olympics – set to be South Korea’s national “coming out” party – under threat, it was clear to Chun’s regime that change was essential.

With Roh pre-positioned as Chun’s successor, there is some debate about which of the two men was the key voice in agreeing to fully democratic direct elections that year.

But no opacity hangs over the election result.  In a major irony, Roh was the beneficiary of a divided opposition when the liberal vote was split between two long-time pro-democracy firebrands, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. In December 1987, Roh emerged on top.

President Moon Jae-in (R) consoles family members before a tomb at the Gwangju National Cemetery to mark the 37th anniversary in May 2017 of a pro-democracy uprising. Photo: AFP / Kim Min-Hee

Though his victory generated some rumbles at the time, the judgment of posterity is that the milestone election was free and fair. That grants Roh a unique legacy: A player who served as the number-two man in a military junta, then as the number-one man in Korea’s first democratically elected, five-year administration.

Varied careers

Roh was born in Daegu, a stronghold of conservative politics in Korea, in 1932. He was conscripted to serve in artillery in the Korean War, before deciding upon an army career and entering the military academy.

He befriended fellow officer Chun and both could go on to serve in Vietnam in infantry command roles. Back home, they would create a secret society of ambitious military officers, “Hanahoe,” inside the army.

Hanahoe amassed significant power. Following Park’s assassination, Chun was assigned to investigate the country’s powerful Korean Central Intelligence Agency; Park’s assassin, for reasons that remain cloudy to this day, had headed that body.

Despite the KCIA’s fearsome reputation, by most accounts, Chun overawed it. With both military and intelligence under his wing, Chun was perfectly positioned for a creeping coup that won him control of the country for the next seven years.

In Chun’s government, Roh, after hanging up his uniform, took on various ministerial positions, notably National Security and Foreign Affairs. He also headed the 1988 Olympic Organizing Committee.

After he entered the Blue House, reporters who had known Roh prior to 1987 were surprised at how he softened his image and manner.

South Korea’s health system is part of the Roh legacy. Photo: AFP

Roh would oversee the national triumph of the 1988 Olympics, which proved a timely showcase for South Korea’s impressive economic development to Eastern European nations exiting the shadow of communism as the USSR imploded.

In the new, post-Cold War era, under the banner of “Nordpolitick” Roh’s foreign ministry would manage the opening up of relations – and markets – in previously communist countries. Most significantly, Seoul in 1992 established diplomatic relations with former Korean War foe Beijing.

Roh also created the national health service – which proved to be one of the world’s most successful in the battle against Covid-19. In a rather more dubious legacy, his daughter married Choi Tae-won, the heir of the SK Group, one of the country’s conglomerates.

Under the Roh administration, SK, which previously specialized in petrochemicals, expanded into telecoms via an acquisition which some criticized as being politically influenced. South Korea would subsequently shine in the field of mobile telecoms, and SKT would become (and remains) the nation’s leading carrier.

At time of writing, Choi and Ms. Roh are reportedly in divorce proceedings.

President-elect Kim Young-sam (L) shakes hands with outgoing president Roh Tae-woo in February, 1993, at the Blue House in Seoul. Photo: AFP / Kim Jae-hwan

A final drama and a slow fade

Post-presidency, Roh might have assumed that he had secured his own future. Having lured former opposition leader Kim Young-sam (“YS”) into his party, the 1993 election was won.

However, Roh’s – and Chun’s – retirement would not be uneventful. Under the YS administration, as South Koreans plucked more and more of the fruits of democratic governance, calls to bring Chun and Roh to justice swelled to a national roar.  In 1996, the pair found themselves in a courtroom over Chun’s coup and the deadly 1980 crackdown on Gwangju.

After a trial that transfixed the nation, Chun was sentenced to death and Roh to 22 years in prison, though the sentences were reduced to life and 17 years, respectively. But as the Asian economic crisis bore down upon Korea, the incoming president – Kim Dae-jung (“DJ”), formerly a staunch enemy of the two ex-generals – sought national unity and met to discuss matters with YS.

Chun and Roh were granted presidential pardons by YS in December 1997.

The two settled into nearby mansions in a western Seoul suburb. Ironically, that suburb lies adjacent to Sinchon, the campus district that was the scene of the fiercest student opposition to their rule in the 1980s.

While Chun – who, to this day, evidences bull-like vitality – has remained an unrepentant and often outspoken public figure, Roh very largely disappeared from public life, though his autobiography appeared in 2011.

Rumors of ill health – prostate cancer, asthma and a cerebral condition – had circulated for years before his death.

Roh Tae-woo, former South Korean military officer and president, is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.