Chun Doo-hwan, a general-turned-strongman who died Tuesday at the age of 90, was the central figure in South Korean democracy’s dark history.
His death came just 28 days after his coup d’etat comrade and immediate successor, Roh Tae-woo, passed away on Oct. 26.
With the deaths of the two ex-presidents, the curtain fell on a chapter of Korea’s turbulent times: the bloody crackdown on the Gwangju Democratic Uprising of May 18, 1980.
Chun’s iron-fisted rule (1980-1988) left an indelible stain on the country’s path to democracy. He took power through a Dec. 12 military revolt after the Oct. 26, 1979 assassination of former President Park Chung-hee.
Chun, then a two-star defense security commander, investigated the assassination. Then he led the rebellion in the military, quelled the uprising in Gwangju by force the following year, and tightened his grip on power.
The reason it is hard to mourn him is that he died without a word of repentance or apology about the massacre of pro-democracy protesters or the military coup.
He never even expressed regrets about his many other crimes: such as suppressing the press and the forced integration of media firms, setting up the Samcheong reeducation camp, extorting astronomical slush funds from companies, and deploying the military to arrest more than 60,000 people without warrants, many of them innocent civilians, to punish them for “social ills.”
It is deplorable that until his death Chun denied responsibility for the bloody crackdown on the Gwangju Uprising, while Roh made efforts toward self-reflection.
Chun’s regime was not without positive aspects. He kept his promise to limit his presidency to a single seven-year term. His government propelled brisk economic growth while keeping prices stable. It also won Korea the right to host the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympic Games, the country’s first Olympics.
But the violent repression of democracy movements throughout his rule is a stain on his presidency.
Chun was punished after retirement. He was sentenced to death in 1996 for leading a military mutiny and killing people for the purpose of rebellion. He was condemned for destroying the constitutional order and massacring innocent people. But his sentence was commuted to life in prison, and later he was pardoned by former President Kim Young-sam.
Despite the legal punishment, in a memoir he defended his regime’s actions as righteous and denied his responsibility for troops firing at Gwangju protesters who condemned his illegal power grab. He was criticized for his absurd remark that all his assets amounted to 290,000 won ($244), even as he was seen playing golf with his aides frequently. The court ordered him to forfeit 220.5 billion won upon his bribery conviction, but he left 95.6 billion won unpaid.
Toward the end of his life, he was accused of defaming the late Rev. Cho Cheol-hyeon (Father Pius), a Roman Catholic priest who testified to having witnessed the military shooting at citizens from helicopters during the Gwangju Uprising. Chun referred to the priest as a “masked Satan” in his memoir, and the court found Chun guilty.
Though the two presidents who knew the most about the bloody suppression of May 18, 1980, and who bear the greatest responsibility have left this world one by one, the task of uncovering the truth is not over yet. If Chun had repented and apologized, though belatedly, it might have been possible to resolve the conflicts to some extent.
His repressive rule succumbed to the June 1987 struggle for the direct election of the president. The nation needs to ask itself if it has succeeded in getting democracy to take root firmly. Safeguarding democracy is the way to clear the remnants of that dark history.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org