Former President Roh, a key man in military coup and witness to democratization
Roh a key player in brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters; first elected president
Published : Oct 26, 2021 - 17:09
Updated : Oct 26, 2021 - 18:34
Former President Roh Tae-woo (Yonhap)
In 1997, Roh Tae-woo was sentenced to 22 1/2 years in jail -- reduced to 17 years on appeal -- and hefty fines, while Chun Doo-hwan was sentenced to death later commuted to life in prison for the crackdown that brutally killed hundreds of protesters during the pro-democracy uprising in Gwangju. But both were pardoned in December 1997. (Yonhap)

Former President Roh Tae-woo, who served as the 13th president of South Korea, died at the age of 88 on Tuesday.

Roh, who had been ailing for a long time with chronic conditions, had recently been hospitalized at Seoul National University Hospital due to worsening health and was in an intensive care unit.

Leaving a mixed legacy, he was the first president to be elected after the June 1987 democratization movement and was also a leading force behind the military coup in 1979 along with his colleague Chun Doo-hwan.

Roh, who graduated from the Korea Military Academy in 1955, served as a security commander, the minister of sports and internal affairs, a lawmaker and the leader of the then-ruling Democratic Justice Party.

On Dec. 12, 1979, as the head of the 9th Infantry Division, Roh played a key role in the military coup that brought Chun to power.

In the process, he was instrumental in actions with implications that continue to this day, such as the nationwide implementation of emergency martial law that led to the Gwangju Democratization Uprising in 1980. During the uprising, hundreds of protestors were killed by the brutal crackdown.

However, due to the coup’s success, Roh emerged as second in command of the new military. He then bleached his military image and transformed into a politician after passing through positions as the first minister of sports, chairman of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee and leader of the Democratic Justice Party.

In 1987, Roh emerged as the successor to former President Chun and was nominated as the presidential candidate for the Democratic Justice Party.

Roh, who was covered by the shadow of Chun, came under the spotlight on June 29, 1987, by announcing the “Declaration of Democracy,” stating that he would accept the public’s demand for a constitutional amendment to the direct election system.

The introduction of the direct election system raised the possibility of a regime change to the opposition party. However, as the three opposition candidates -- Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil -- were divided, Roh won the 1987 presidential election with 36 percent of votes to succeed Chun. This remains the lowest winning proportion of votes in the direct election system since democratization. Roh served as president from 1988 to 1993.

After the then-ruling Democratic Justice Party failed to secure a majority of seats in the 13th general election, Roh pushed ahead with a three-party alliance with Reunification Democratic Party leader Kim Young-sam and New Democratic Republican Party leader Kim Jong-pil to overcome the ruling party’s small number of seats.

After taking office, Roh successfully hosted the Seoul Olympics in 1988, helping to raise Korea’s status in the international community.

When he was a minister for political affairs in 1981, he led a 107-member delegation, including leading sports and business figures, and achieved the “Miracle of Baden-Baden.”

During the bid, Seoul, a latecomer, received 52 votes, surpassing Nagoya, Japan, which received 27 votes, to be selected as the host city for the 24th Summer Olympics. Korea became the second country in Asia after Japan (after Tokyo in 1964), the first as a developing country, and the world‘s 16th host country for the Summer Olympics.

In addition, by actively pursuing a policy of “Nordpolitik” thanks to external circumstances such as the collapse of the Cold War system at the time, he made achievements in establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and China, as well as Eastern Bloc communist countries.

“Nordpolitik,” which opened the door with its first diplomatic relations with Hungary, later led to the normalization of relations with almost all Eastern European countries, including Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania.

Roh likewise also expanded Korea’s diplomatic horizons in 1991 by leading the adoption of a basic agreement between the two Koreas, focusing on simultaneous accession to the United Nations.

His grades as far as economic concerns were not good, however.

In the early days of Roh’s inauguration, the domestic economy was booming with low oil prices, low interest rates and low exchange rates with the US dollar. However, he was unable to sustain growth due to inconsistent economic policies.

During his tenure, demands for democratization from citizens of all walks of life erupted and labor strikes continued. Under this circumstance, Roh’s administration found it difficult to pursue an economic growth policy.

Instead, he pushed ahead with the cancellation of debt in rural areas, the construction of 2 million houses and the concept of public land ownership -- a concept that land ownership and disposal can be restricted for the public interest. He also started large-scale national projects such as Incheon International Airport and the high-speed Korea Train Express rail system.

His intimate relationship with Chun began to crack after taking office.

In the face of public calls for the arrest of Chun, Roh recommended that he stay in a quiet place until public sentiment subsided and Chun chose Baekdamsa Temple in Gangwon Province

On the night of Nov. 22, 1988, the day before leaving for Baekdamsa Temple, Chun called Roh to ask his opinion and Roh said, “As president, I am ashamed that I cannot secure the safety of my predecessor.” Roh told him to endure and he would work to recover public sentiment to its original state as soon as he could.

However, after retirement, Roh’s status was changed to a criminal suspect as the Kim Young-sam administration, launched in 1993, defined the Dec. 12 incident as a coup.

Roh and Chun were arrested in 1995 on charges of collecting bribes from businesspeople while in office. Roh was also indicted on mutiny and treason charges stemming from Chun’s coup and the crackdown that brutally killed hundreds of protesters during the pro-democracy uprising in Gwangju.

Roh was sentenced to 22 1/2 years in jail -- reduced to 17 years on appeal -- and hefty fines, while Chun was sentenced to death, later commuted to life in prison. But both were pardoned in December 1997.

During the prosecution‘s investigation, Chun said, ”Roh did something wrong. (He) should not have gone to the prosecution and held on to the end.”

Roh long faced controversy over the unpaid fines, but belatedly paid in full in September 2013, while Chun has not yet paid his fines.

Entering the 2000s, Roh’s health deteriorated rapidly and he rarely appeared in public. After undergoing prostate cancer surgery in 2002, Roh was hospitalized repeatedly.

Roh is survived by his wife Kim Ok-sook, daughter So-young and son Jae-heon. SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, who has filed a divorce suit with So-young, is his son-in-law.

By Shin Ji-hye (
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