Chun Doo-hwan, South Koreas Most Vilified Ex-Military Dictator, Dies at 90

Chun Doo-hwan, South Koreas Most Vilified Ex-Military Dictator, Dies at 90

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 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.