SEOUL – Chun Doo-hwan, an ex-general who ruled as president of South Korea from 1980 to 1988, died early on Tuesday morning from natural causes, aged 90.
Chun achieved a core national mission by securing the 1988 Summer Olympics for Seoul. Despite his personal lack of economic nous, he oversaw a national economic surge and handed over power in what would be the country’s first lasting democratic transition.
But even in a nation that is far from kind to its former presidents – the only two still living are both serving jail terms – Chun was especially despised.
Not only did he seize power via a coup d’etat, he deployed elite troops to bloodily suppress protests in the southwestern city of Gwangju that left hundreds dead and a very dark stain on the national political consciousness. In the years that followed, Chun never displayed contrition.
Bald, stocky and forceful, Chun deployed demonic energy – and also enjoyed luck that might be described as devilish.
He escaped a bloody assassination attempt by North Korean commandos while in office, and a South Korean death sentence after leaving it. And right up to his final months, his bullish health held out, to the point where he could play golf, meet cronies and defy angry accusers in court hearings.
Soldier, general, president
Chun was born into a poor family in 1931 in the southeast, South Korea’s bastion of right-wing politics. Embarking upon a military career, he graduated from the Military Academy – one path of upward mobility at the time. He undertook special forces training and served in the Vietnam War as a ground forces commander.
He and his close associate and fellow officer Roh Tae-woo founded a secret military society of academy graduates, Hanahoe. Perhaps because of related connections, perhaps because of his energy and pugnaciousness, Chun received his first star in 1978 and secured a number of important and influential positions, including as commander of the shadowy and powerful Defense Security Command.
After President Park Chung-hee – also an ex-general and putschist – was assassinated in 1979, then-Maajor General Chun was assigned to oversee an investigation of the fearsome Korean CIA – whose previous head, for reasons that remain mysterious to this day, had pulled the trigger on Park.
By all accounts, Chun overawed that body, granting him control of two key levers of power: intelligence and the armed forces, where he violently applied his leadership.
The death of Park had generated the “Seoul Spring” – a time when many South Koreans believed they had emerged from the shadow of dictatorship and could set their own political destinies. It was not to be. Via a creeping coup, Chun expanded martial law, cowed the media, crushed protests and subsequently eradicated political parties.
In office, Chun, aware of his lack of economic background, sensibly entrusted related policy to a bureaucratic brain trust of civil servants. Former strongman Park had laid the foundation of both a national infrastructure and national industry.
As global trade accelerated in the 1980s, Chun’s economic mandarins oversaw South Korea’s expanding “chips to ships” conglomerates as, driven by ambitious founder-chairmen, they plowed ever deeper into world markets.
National economic metrics climbed – aided to a considerable extent by laws and practices that favored business and enabled harsh, even sweat-shop, working conditions.
But a middle class was also rising as prosperity expanded. Color came to national TV, professional sports leagues were formed and increasing numbers of South Koreans acquired apartments and cars.
The rise of this class was visible on global TV screens – in the growing population of college students, many of whom took to the streets against Chun’s regime in often heated confrontations with conscript riot police.
Chun handed the keys to the presidential Blue House to close associate Roh Tae-woo in February 1988, after a democratic plebiscite in December 1987. By then, the country was fully prepared to host the Summer Olympic Games – hosting rights to which Seoul had won after beating out a bid by Nagoya in 1981.
That event proved to be a showcase to the world of the newly prosperous, newly democratic South Korea and is viewed today as a milestone in the national development story. But seen in the harsh light of Chun’s darkest deed, little of the above will spring to mind for today’s South Koreans when they remember him.
In May 1980, protests against Chun’s ongoing power grab were suppressed in Seoul, but in the gritty city of Gwangju, in the undeveloped and politically resistant southwest, demonstrations continued. Chun deployed his toughest soldiers – black beret airborne rangers – to teach Gwangju a lesson.
On May 18, troops wielding batons and with automatic weapons slung over their backs waded into the demonstrators using newly formulated “true heart” riot-control tactics. These tactics, deployed by light, fast-moving units, were far more aggressive than those used by police. Demonstrators, recoiling from the surprising brutality, resisted forcefully.
Tensions escalated. More battalions of black berets were sent to the city, to the point where three brigades would be deployed.
Although details about exactly what transpired remain clouded, what is clear is that on May 20, the troops started shooting. Infuriated citizens, many with military training under their belts, grabbing weapons from civil defense armories and armored vehicles from industrial plants, fought back.
With an insurrection underway, the airborne troops retreated from the city. For a week, Gwangju was run by a people’s committee.
From Seoul, a national information blackout was instituted to prevent the wider populace from learning what was underway. Meanwhile, Chun was marshaling massive forces – line infantry units as well as the regrouped black berets.
Through control of the media, the rebellion underway in Gwangju was painted as a communist event, with Chun telling citizens that the US approved his troop movements.
On May 27, the army retook the city in a concentric assault, wiping out the last group of hardcore resistors at the Provincial Hall. The Gwangju Uprising was over.
To this day, and despite multiple probes in recent years, it is unclear exactly how many were killed in Gwangju. Most estimates are about 250, though some go north of 1,000.
Due to apparent US acquiescence in troop deployments, and to President Ronald Reagan’s reception of Chun on a visit to the US, the flame of anti-Americanism was lit in South Korea. Overall, the legacy of the May 18 Gwangju Democracy Uprising resounds to this day with the victims now seen as national martyrs.
Luck of the devil
Chun received minimal punishment for his actions over Gwangju, even though South Korea won democracy in 1987.
That June, following the deaths of two student protesters in Seoul – one during police waterboarding, one who has hit by a flying tear gas grenade canister during a demonstration – the capital was convulsed by massive, People Power protests that mirrored those that had taken place in the Philippines the year before, overthrowing Ferdinand Marcos.
Chun, under enormous pressure, acquiesced to public demands for democracy and an election took place in December. With the opposition vote split between two candidates – Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, who had both resisted Park and Chun, but who came from different political districts – Chun’s right-hand man, Roh Tae-woo, won the presidency.
But what had happened in Gwangju could not be kept bottled up in the newly democratic South Korea. In 1990, Chun went into a retreat in a Buddhist temple as a form of penance for corruption in office. Inevitably, Chun and Roh found themselves facing a court.
In 1996, in the glare of the national spotlight, the two faced charges ranging from corruption to treason to murder. Chun – who remained unrepentant in the dock – was sentenced to death, later commuted to life in prison.
However, in a remarkable turn of events, the incoming president in 1997, Kim Dae-jung, persuaded outgoing president Kim Young-sam to grant pardons to Chun and Roh, on the grounds of national unity. Their sentences were overturned and both were freed from prison.
It was not the first time Chun had cheated a dire fate.
In 1983, he was absent when North Korean commandos planted bombs that blew up much of his cabinet during a state visit to Rangoon, Burma, killing 21 people including four ministers. Chun’s survival was pure luck. He was late for the appointment at the site of the explosions, as his car had been stuck in traffic.
Roh, suffering poor health in retirement, largely retreated inside the portals of his mansion in a district in Seoul close to the elite Yonsei University – the scene of many of the biggest protests of the 1980s. Roh also came to a late repentance for Gwangju.
Chun did not restrict himself to the grounds of his house. Facing fines of US$180 million for corruption while in office, he infamously claimed to have only $245 in his bank account. It later transpired that he had signed over many of his assets to family members, and maintained the membership of an elite golf club.
He fought his last battles in a Gwangju court over a detail related to the uprising. In his autobiography, he insisted that those who saw helicopters mounting machine guns firing into the city had been liars. That resulted in him facing a long-running defamation lawsuit, which ended with a guilty verdict in 2020.
His appeal against that verdict had not been reached by the time of his death. However, due to fallout from the affair, his memoirs were withheld from publication.
A broader sign of Chun’s uncanny good fortune is that, despite the gravity of what transpired in Gwangju, he enjoyed a far brighter retirement than many of his presidential peers.
Among those who have led South Korea since it was formed as a state in 1948, one fled into US exile, one was assassinated and one committed suicide. The only two still living are now behind bars, serving separate sentences for corruption while in office.
And only in his final months did the vigor that had so animated the bald, stocky ex-president depart him.
As recently as March 2020, when Chun appeared in court in Gwangju, he seemed to be in good health. But in his last court appearance, in August this year, he appeared gaunt and dozed off and it was revealed he was suffering from blood cancer.
His funeral status is unknown. But due to the widespread distaste in which Chun is held, a state event looks highly unlikely. His last wish, reportedly, was to be buried in a frontline position overlooking North Korea.
He was pre-deceased by his confidant, fellow general, fellow ex-president and close-neighbor Roh, who died on October 26.
Chun Doo-hwan is survived by his wife, three sons and one daughter.
Bradley Martin, an Asia Times editor who was one of a handful of foreign reporters who covered Chun’s most notorious action in 1980, offers the following: “Gwangju showed his true colors. Not only did he send in the specialized killers to put down the protest, but he also tried to blame the Americans in the process.
“He was successful enough in the blame game that many South Koreans still assign the US a large share of the blame for Gwangju. I was there and can testify that they are wrong. They’ve been duped into singing Chun’s tune. Normally my principle is not to speak ill of the dead, but I’m making an exception in the case of that loathsome bully. Good riddance!”