Chun Doo-hwan, South Korea’s most vilified former military dictator, who seized power in a coup and ruled his country with an iron fist for most of the 1980s, dispatching paratroopers and armored vehicles to mow down hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, died on Tuesday at his home in Seoul. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by South Korea’s national police agency.
In 1996, eight years after he left office, Mr. Chun was sentenced to death on sedition and mutiny charges stemming from his role in the 1979 coup that brought him to power and the massacre of demonstrators at the southwestern city of Gwangju the following year. But he was pardoned in 1997 in a gesture of reconciliation, shortly after Kim Dae-jung, a former dissident whom Mr. Chun’s military junta had once condemned to death, was elected president.
Mr. Chun, who was president from 1979 until early 1988, was also convicted of collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from wealthy, politically connected families known as chaebol whose businesses expanded into conglomerates with the help of tax cuts and other government favors.
Unapologetic to the end, Mr. Chun was the last to die among South Korea’s three military general-turned presidents.
As an army captain, Mr. Chun took part in Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee’s coup in 1961, a move that secured his place in Mr. Park’s military elite. When Mr. Park’s 18-year dictatorship abruptly ended with his assassination in 1979, Mr. Chun, by then a major general himself, staged his own coup to usurp control. He later handpicked his friend Roh Tae-woo, also a former general, as successor. Mr. Roh, president from 1988 to 1993, died in October.
During the three generals’ combined rule of 32 years, South Korea rose from the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean War to become one of Asia’s Tiger economies, overtaking rival North Korea in industrial output and national income. While Mr. Chun was in office, South Korea tamed its chronic inflation, and its economy was among the world’s fastest growing, expanding an average 10 percent a year.
His government also overcame huge odds against Japan, its historical enemy, to win the right to host to the 1988 Olympics, widely seen as a coming-out party for the once war-torn nation.
But Mr. Chun is mostly remembered as a dictator.
“Among South Koreans, his name is synonymous with a tyrannical military dictator,” said Choi Jin, director of the Institute for Presidential Leadership in Seoul. “His positive achievements are far outweighed by his negative legacies — the illegitimate way he came to power and the dictatorial streak that ran through his term.”
Mr. Chun was born on Jan. 18, 1931, to a farming family in Hapcheon in what is now southern South Korea. At the time, Korea was a colony of Japan’s.
While his father, Chun Sang-woo, ran from debt-collectors and Japanese police officers (after pushing one of them off a cliff), his mother, Kim Jeom-mun, had high expectations for Doo-hwan, one of their four sons. When a Buddhist fortuneteller predicted that her three protruding frontal teeth would block the boy’s path to future glory, she rushed into her kitchen and yanked them out with a pair of tongs, according to “Chun Doo-hwan: Man of Destiny,” an authorized biography published after his coup.
After finishing vocational high school, Doo-hwan gave up going to college because he could not pay tuition. Instead, he joined the Korea Military Academy, where he practiced boxing and captained its soccer team as a goalie. (As president, he used to call the head coach of South Korea’s national soccer team in the middle of a match to dictate game strategy.)
General Chun was serving as head of the military’s intelligence command in late 1979 when Mr. Park was assassinated by the director of K.C.I.A., his spy agency, during a drinking party. Mr. Chun and his army friends — mostly officers like Mr. Roh who hailed from his home province in the southeast of South Korea — arrested their boss and martial-law commander, the army chief of staff, Gen. Jeong Seung-hwa, and moved their troops into Seoul to complete his largely bloodless coup.
“It was a dirty rebellion that served no other purpose than to satisfy Chun Doo-hwan’s personal greed,” General Jeong said later. He said Mr. Chun’s cronies had flogged and waterboarded him to extract a false confession that he had been complicit in Mr. Park’s assassination.
Mr. Chun placed the country under a martial law, closing Parliament and universities and detaining prominent dissidents, including the two main opposition leaders, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. In May 1980, people in Gwangju, Kim Dae-jung’s political home base, rose up in protest, chanting, “Down with Chun Doo-hwan!”
Troops moved in, wielding batons and bayonets and opening fire. Some protesters armed themselves with weapons stolen from police stations. The crackdown cost at least 191 lives by official count, including 26 soldiers and police officers. Victims’ families said the death toll was much higher.
Mr. Chun’s military junta later sentenced Kim Dae-jung to death on a false charge of instigating the Gwangju uprising at the behest of North Korea.
“The incident was an outrage and a tragedy that was to profoundly shape the thinking of an entire generation of young people in Korea, making many of them extremely critical of the United States,” David Straub, a former American diplomat who served in South Korea at the time, wrote in his 2015 book “Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea.”
To young Koreans, Washington’s perceived failure to stop the Gwangju massacre despite the fact that their country had placed its military under the operational control of American generals was evidence of betrayal. Later, President Ronald Reagan’s “quiet diplomacy”toward Mr. Chun’s human rights abuses hardened their belief that Washington had ignored Koreans’ suffering under Mr. Chun.
Anti-Americanism among young South Koreans raged into later decades. Student activists raided U.S. diplomatic facilities, setting one on fire. American military bases were plagued by demonstrators shouting, “Yankee, go Home!”
Washington said that it had been caught off-guard by Mr. Chun’s coup and that none of the forces deployed at Gwangju were at the time under the control of any American authorities. It criticized Mr. Chun’s martial law and called for restraint in Gwangju, but the government-controlled South Korean news media reported that the United States had approved Mr. Chun’s dispatch of troops there.
Mr. Chun “manipulated not only the Korean public, but also the United States,” Mr. Straub wrote.
In a rare interview published in the South Korean monthly magazine Shindonga in 2016, Mr. Chun denied giving a shoot-to-kill order in Gwangju. He called himself a victim of political “revenge.”
“I had nothing to do with the Gwangju incident,” he told the magazine. “As a soldier, I saw the country in a difficult situation, and I had to become president because there was no other way. It was not like I wanted to become president.”
After the Gwangju massacre, Mr. Chun had himself elected president by an electoral college filled with pro-government delegates. He forced the country’s news media to shut down or merge into a handful of newspapers and TV stations, which his government controlled with a daily “press guideline.” Prime-time TV news always began with reports on Mr. Chun’s daily routine. A comedian was banished from TV when people began comparing him to Mr. Chun; both were bald.
Dissidents, student activists and journalists were hauled into torture chambers. Under Mr. Chun’s “social purification” program, the government rounded up tens of thousands of gangsters, homeless people, political dissidents and others deemed to be unhealthy elements of the society and trucked them to military barracks for brutal re-education. Hundreds were reported to have died under the program.
North Korea tried to assassinate Mr. Chun while he was visiting Burma, now known as Myanmar, in 1983. Bombs planted by its agents destroyed the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), then the Burmese capital, and killed 21 people, including several South Korean cabinet ministers. Mr. Chun escaped the attack because his arrival there had been delayed.
Deeply unpopular, Mr. Chun wanted his handpicked successor, Mr. Roh, elected by the same rubber-stamp electoral college. But amid massive protests triggered by the death of a tortured student activist, he and Mr. Roh acceded to a popular election.
Mr. Roh became the country’s first directly elected president in 16 years, thanks largely to the split of opposition votes between the two dissident candidates, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, whose mutual mistrust was as deep as their common hatred of military rule.
Mr. Chun tried to appease the public calling for his punishment by going into domestic exile in a remote Buddhist monastery. But after Kim Young-sam took power in 1993, he went after Mr. Chun, Mr. Roh and other former generals once considered untouchable.
Mr. Chun was on his way to the bathroom on Tuesday, assisted by his wife, Lee Soon-ja, when he collapsed, said a senior police officer who was in charge of guarding Mr. Chun’s residence in Seoul. In addition to his wife, he is survived by their four children, Jae-yong, Hyo-sun, Jae-guk and Jae-man.
In a Supreme Court ruling in 1997, Mr. Chun was ordered to return 220 billion won, or $190 million, to the state that he had illegally accumulated through bribery. He said he didn’t have enough to pay the fine. Critics accused him of hiding assets in the care of relatives.
Prosecutors have so far collected only half the sum, even though they raided his home to confiscate what they could, including a refrigerator and two dogs.