Roh Tae-woo, 88, South Korean Democracy Leader, Dies

SEOUL – Roh Tae-woo, the last army-backed South Korean president who forged ties with communist enemies and tolerated the country’s turbulent transition from dictatorship to democracy, but who ended up in prison for mutiny and corruption, died here on Tuesday. He was 88 years old.

Seoul National University Hospital said Mr. Roh died in an intensive care unit, but provided no further details.

Mr. Roh, who was president from 1988 to 1993, ruled South Korea through a tumultuous period as a transitional and largely unpopular figure between military and civilian rule.

“He was a bridge between authoritarianism and democracy,” said Lee Chung-hee, professor emeritus at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “South Korea has gone through the transition without experiencing a bloody revolution. “

Roh Tae-woo was born in Daegu, southeastern Korea, on December 4, 1932, the son of a rural government official who died when Mr. Roh was 7 years old. At the Korean Military Academy, he met the son of another poor family, Chun Doo. -hwan, and the two forged a friendship that would shape the future of their country.

Speaking the same dialect and linked by regional prejudices, the two men and their allies from Gyeongsang, a southeastern province, rose through the army hierarchy, sponsored by military strongman Park Chung-hee. They trained in a secret club they formed called Hanahoe, which roughly means “one for all, all for one association.”

When Mr. Park was assassinated by his spy chief in 1979, Mr. Roh, a division commander tasked with guarding the border with North Korea, hijacked his troops to support Mr. Chun in a coup. on December 12, 1979. Mr. Chun at the time was a major general and head of the Army Intelligence Command.

Seizing power, Mr. Chun deployed tanks and paratroopers to the southwestern town of Gwangju, where citizens rose up in an armed rebellion in May 1980. The result, which came to symbolize the brutality of the Southern Army at the time, took at least 191 lives, including 26 military and police.

Mr. Roh remained a number 2 stalwart during Mr. Chun’s Iron Fist reign, which lasted until early 1988. He oversaw South Korea’s successful bid for the 1988 Olympics, defeating the candidacy of Japan. In a memoir, he wrote that part of his winning strategy was to impress members of the International Olympic Committee by assigning Korean beauty queens as personal escorts at IOC meetings.

In 1987, Mr. Chun selected Mr. Roh as the presidential candidate of his ruling party. This made him the next president – the country chose its president by an electoral college filled with pro-government delegates – until citizens rose up in Seoul and other cities to organize huge demonstrations demanding an end to military rule.

To avoid riots, Mr. Chun and Mr. Roh acceded to demands for political reforms, including the holding of popular elections. Mr. Roh won this contest easily when the opposition vote was split between two dissident candidates, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, who despised themselves as much as they disliked the military regime. Mr. Roh’s victory made him the country’s first directly elected president in 16 years.

Mr. Roh presided over the opening ceremony of the Olympics, an exit party for a nation proud to have built a roaring economy on the ashes of the Korean War. The 1988 Games were a great success despite a North Korean attempt to sabotage them with the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987, and despite demonstrations by students chanting “Down with the dictatorship!” and throwing kerosene bombs.

Emboldened, Roh pushed his “Nordpolitik” policy further, opening diplomatic relations with countries like the Soviet Union and China – an effort that helped thaw relations on the divided Korean peninsula.

The two Koreas joined the United Nations simultaneously in 1991. They also signed an agreement to keep the peninsula nuclear-weapon-free – an agreement that North Korea has flouted with six nuclear tests since 2006.

Mr. Roh was a stark contrast to the die-hard ex-generals who had ruled the country before him, Mr. Park and Mr. Chun. Portraits of a smiling Mr. Roh have appeared on the walls of government offices. He allowed comedians to mock politicians, including Mr. Chun, his now disgraced friend, who was forced into exile in a Buddhist monastery as calls mounted to punish him and his relatives for corruption.

But he also became a patron of the “TK Mafia”, former generals and technocrats from Daegu, his hometown, and the surrounding region of Gyeongsang, who held important government and party positions. During Mr. Roh’s reign, police raided factories to break workers’ strikes and arrested government critics, including dissidents who had returned from Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, where they had promoted Korean unification.

“His regime had characteristics of both military authoritarianism and civilian presidency,” said Choi Jin, director of the Non-Partisan Institute of Presidential Leadership.

Mr. Roh’s intermittent tolerance for political protests, his hesitation between rival factions within his party, his gentle smile – all of these combine to give him the best-remembered nickname: Mul Tae- woo, the Korean equivalent of “Roh le mou.” “

His repeated call to his dubious people: “Please believe me; I’m an ordinary guy like you ”- ridiculed him after he resigned in 1993, when it turned out that he and Mr. Chun had each embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes in their own coffers.

They were also convicted in 1996 of treason and mutiny for their role in the coup and the Gwangju massacre. Mr. Chun was sentenced to death – the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment – while Mr. Roh was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Both were pardoned and released from prison in December 1997.

The two friends did not speak to each other in their ignominious retreats, although they lived in the same neighborhood in Seoul. Mr. Chun, who is 90, often ventured outside surrounded by his former colleagues, but Mr. Roh lived quietly, largely forgotten by those he had led.

“Roh Tae-woo was a characterless president who has faded from popular memories,” said Mr. Choi of the leadership institute. “South Koreans have rebelled against dictators, but they like a leader with a strong character. “

Mr. Roh is survived by his wife, Kim Ok-suk; their two children, Roh Soh-yeong and Roh Jae-heon; and six grandchildren.

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