Former South Korean President Roh Tae-woo died on Tuesday after taking part in a military coup and winning the country’s first democratic election before being imprisoned for corruption. He was 88 years old when he died.
Roh died at Seoul National University Hospital while being treated for an illness, according to the hospital. It didn’t go on to say anything else.
After their mentor, dictator Park Chung-hee, was murdered earlier in 1979, Roh was a crucial participant in the 1979 military coup that installed his army comrade and coup leader Chun Doo-hwan as president.
Roh led his army division into Seoul, where he joined other military leaders in seizing the city. The 1980 coup and ensuing crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in the southern city of Gwangju by the Chun-controlled military are two of the worst events in South Korea’s volatile contemporary history.
According to government statistics, almost 200 people were killed in Gwangju as a result of military-led crackdowns.
Roh was Chun’s hand-picked successor, and his election to the president would have been a cakewalk. However, months of strong pro-democracy protests in 1987 drove Roh and Chun to accept a direct presidential election, which marked the beginning of South Korea’s democratic transition.
Despite his military history, Roh maintained a calm and pleasant demeanor during the campaign, referring to himself as a “ordinary guy.”
His win in the tumultuous December 1987 election was primarily due to a split in opposition votes between Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, both of whom went on to become presidents.
During his five-year reign, Roh used his “Northward Diplomacy” to actively pursue connections with communist countries as communism crumbled in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Because of its competition with North Korea, South Korea was profoundly anti-communist at the time, but under Roh, it established diplomatic ties with a communist country for the first time — Hungary — in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall collapsed and communism imploded across Eastern Europe.
In 1990, Roh established diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, then in 1992, with China. Under Roh, relations with North Korea improved, with the two nations conducting their first-ever prime ministers’ discussions in 1990 and both entering the UN at the same time in 1991.
In recent years, the adversaries’ ties have suffered significant losses and retreats, with Pyongyang pursuing a nuclear weapons program that it regards as a means of survival.
Many people thought Roh lacked charismatic and assertive leadership when it came to domestic matters. His moniker, “Mul (Water) Tae-woo,” alluded to his administration’s lack of color and flavor. In contrast to his authoritarian predecessors, Park and Chun, he also introduced more openness by permitting more political mockery. Under the guise of preventing civil unrest and North Korean threats, the governments led by Park and Chun frequently employed security measures to crush political opponents and restrict expression.
Roh focused on increasing domestic spending in his last years as president to compensate for exports that were hampered by global economic downturns, only to be dealt the lowest full-year growth rate of his presidency.
Roh was arrested, convicted of mutiny, treason, and corruption, and sentenced to 22 1/2 years in jail when his successor, Kim Young-sam, investigated the coup and military-led crackdown. Chun was given the death penalty.
Chun’s sentence was lowered to life in prison, while Roh’s was reduced to 17 years. Despite this, each were forced to repay hundreds of millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains.
Both Roh and Chun were freed in late 1997 after serving roughly two years in jail, thanks to a special pardon requested by then-President-elect Kim Dae-jung, who wanted national unity during the Asian financial crisis.
Kim Dae-jung was a former dissident who was put to death by the military junta led by Chun and Roh on fabricated allegations of masterminding the 1980 civil insurrection.
Following his release from jail, Roh kept primarily out of the spotlight, avoiding political activity and speeches.