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South Korea

South Korea's ex-dictator Chun dies at 90

'Butcher of Gwangju' brutally crushed opponents until mass demonstrations forced him out

AFP, Seoul

AFP, Seoul

Published: November 23, 2021 05:08 AM GMT

Updated: November 23, 2021 05:18 AM GMT

South Korea's ex-dictator Chun dies at 90

Former South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan (center) and his wife Lee Sun-ja (left) start a 100-day prayer at Seoul's Chogye Temple on Dec. 30, 1997. (Photo: AFP)

South Korean dictator Chun Doo-hwan brutally crushed opponents until mass demonstrations forced him out, and he remains among the country's most reviled figures despite being its first president to hand over power peacefully.

Chun, who died aged 90 today, became known as the "Butcher of Gwangju" for ordering troops to put down a 1980 uprising against his rule in the southwestern city.

It was one of the actions that saw him later condemned to death for treason. But Chun never faced the gallows — the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on appeal, followed by a presidential pardon.

Chun presided over growing prosperity for South Korea and secured the 1988 Olympics for Seoul, but the verdict of history has been stark.

And the US backing he enjoyed as the Cold War entered its final years — with Washington fearing instability in a strategically important ally — reinforced a distrust of America among Korean liberals that endures among some to this day.

Chun's path to power was soaked in the blood of his patron, military strongman Park Chung-hee.

The Gwangju incident was kind of a riot with people carrying guns. Therefore, we had no choice but to have martial law troops put them down

Born in 1931, Chun entered the military academy for officer training at the height of the Korean War. He rose up the military ranks under Park, who seized power in a 1961 coup.

Park's rule came to an abrupt end when he was assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979, creating a power vacuum. Chun took control of the investigation into the killing, and two months later launched a surprise military coup of his own, effectively taking control of South Korea.

Within months, thousands of residents and students mounted protests in Gwangju against the rule of Chun, who declared martial law and after 10 days put down the demonstrations in a bloodbath.

Around 200 people were left dead or missing, according to official figures, but activists say the toll may have been three times as many.

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The episode became a symbol of the struggle for democracy in South Korea.

Chun and far-right political figures dismissed it as a "riot" triggered by North Korea sympathisers.

"The Gwangju incident was kind of a riot with people carrying guns. Therefore, we had no choice but to have martial law troops put them down," an unapologetic Chun said in a 2003 interview.

His eight-year reign was marked by the widespread use of torture against dissidents and the stifling of freedom of expression.

While in power, he also survived a North Korean assassination attempt. During a state visit to Myanmar in 1983, agents tried to kill him by bombing a ceremony at a memorial to Aung San — the assassinated Burmese independence hero and father of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The dead included Chun's foreign minister and top economic adviser, but the target was left unscathed — he had been delayed by traffic and was not even present.

Chun was found guilty last year of defaming a dead priest who had repeatedly testified that helicopters opened fire on civilians in Gwangju

Widespread public protests against Chun in 1987 were on such a scale that he had no choice but to accept the restoration of democracy. He stepped down the following year after his long-time friend and ally Roh Tae-woo, a military academy classmate, won the election.

After opposition leader Kim Young-sam was elected president in 1993, Chun was charged with treason over the 1979 coup, Gwangju and other offenses including bribery. He was convicted and condemned to hang.

Chun appealed successfully against the penalty and was later pardoned at the suggestion of incoming next president Kim Dae-jung, who had himself been sentenced to death under Chun's rule.

During his trial, Chun said the case was "politically motivated" and defended his coup and tenure as president. "I did my best to save the country when it was facing an imminent danger," he said.

Chun denied any direct involvement in the suppression of the Gwangju uprising.

He was mired in court battles until his final years. Chun was found guilty last year of defaming a dead priest who had repeatedly testified that helicopters opened fire on civilians in Gwangju. Chun got a suspended eight-month sentence and was spared a return to prison.

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