(Seoul, South Korea) — South Korean military strongman Chun Doo-hwan, who took power in a 1979 coup and brutally crushed pro-democracy protests before going to prison for crimes in office, died Tuesday. He was 90 years old.
Emergency officials said Chun died at his home. Police said earlier that Chun had a heart attack and emergency officials rushed to his residence in Seoul.
Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were killed and tens of thousands imprisoned during Chun’s presidency in the 1980s, but he allowed some liberalization after years of authoritarian rule. Under public pressure, he permitted the first direct and free elections in the nation’s history.
Facing heavy criticism after leaving office in 1988, Chun took refuge in a Buddhist temple for two years before being arrested. He was tried for corruption, rebellion, and treason, and was sentenced to death upon conviction. He was pardoned in 1997 in an attempt at national reconciliation.
Chun was a major general in the army when he seized power in December 1979 with his military comrades. Tanks and troops rolled into Seoul in a coup that came less than two months after the intelligence chief, President Park Chung-hee, was assassinated during a late-night drinking party.
Chun quickly consolidated his power by suppressing a civil uprising in the southern city of Gwangju, then spelled Gwangju. His government has also imprisoned tens of thousands of students and citizens, saying it is eradicating social evil.
Government records show that the military campaign on Gwangju resulted in approximately 200 deaths. But activists say the civilian death toll is much higher. The Chun Military Court has arrested opposition leader Kim Dae-jung and sentenced him to death for inciting the Gwangju Uprising.
After the United States intervened, Kim’s sentence was commuted and he was later released.
The economy of South Korea flourished during the Chun period. The country also successfully held the 1986 Asian Games and won the rights to host the 1988 Summer Olympics, which began after he left office.
Chun introduced several liberalization measures, including ending the Korean War-era curfew and easing restrictions on overseas trips. To get Washington’s approval for his military-backed government, he reportedly dropped plans to develop atomic bombs and long-range missiles.
Chun sought reconciliation with North Korea by seeking summit talks with then-leader Kim Il-sung, the late grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un. He also agreed to exchange visits between families separated by the Korean War and accepted a rare offer from North Korea for flood aid.
However, North Korea repeatedly challenged South Korea during Chun’s rule. In 1983, North Korean special forces launched a bomb attack targeting Chun during a visit to Myanmar. Chun narrowly escaped injury in the attack that killed 21 people, including several South Korean government ministers. In 1987, North Korean agents bombed a South Korean airliner, killing 115 people on board.
At home, public anger and demonstrations over human rights abuses and the indirect presidential election system led Chun to eventually accept a constitutional review of a direct electoral system.
Roh Tae-woo, Chun’s fellow military who helped him during his coup, won the 1987 election, thanks in large part to a split vote among liberal opposition candidates.
Calls have mounted to punish Chun for corruption and human rights abuses.
Former pro-democracy fighter Kim Young-sam became president in 1993 and both Chun and Roh were tried as part of the reform drive.
They were convicted of rebellion and treason for the coup and suppression of Gwangju, as well as for corruption. Chun was sentenced to death and Roh to 22 and a half years in prison.
The Supreme Court later commuted these sentences. Kim pardoned the two former presidents in late 1997 at the request of President-elect Kim Dae-jung, a once imprisoned activist who sought national reconciliation and revitalized the economy hit by the foreign exchange crisis in Asia.
Roh passed away last month at the age of 88 from complications from various diseases.
Before Chun was released, the court ordered him to repay the $190 million he had accumulated in a stray fund during his tenure. He only returned a portion, arguing that it was broken, until his family said in 2013 that it would hand over real estate, paintings and other assets to pay the rest.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.