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(LEAD) (News Focus) Late ex-President Roh was accused of military coup, but paved path to democratic reform

All News 17:08 October 26, 2021

(ATTN: CORRECTS para 11)
By Kim Deok-hyun

SEOUL, Oct. 26 (Yonhap) -- Former President Roh Tae-woo was accused of deep involvement in a military coup and a brutal crackdown on a pro-democracy civil uprising in the southern city of Gwangju. Ironically, however, he also paved the path to South Korea's democratic reform.

Roh, who died on Tuesday at the age of 88, was a close friend of former President Chun Doo-hwan, an ex-Army general who seized power through a 1979 coup after then-President Park Chung-Hee was assassinated by his spy chief.

Born to a farming family in 1932, Roh befriended Chun while in high-school and they entered the Korean Military Academy together.

Roh served in key military posts, including the commander of the Capital Security Command in 1979, before his retirement from the military in 1981.

When Chun assumed his presidency in 1980, Roh emerged as the junta government's No. 2 man and served as minister in various capacities such as sports, national security and foreign affairs.

Roh Tae-woo, the ruling party's candidate for the 1987 presidential election, announces a plan in Seoul to impose a series of democratic reforms, in this file photo dated June 29, 1987. The June 29 Declaration introduced a direct vote for president and promised to release political prisoners. Roh, who served as president from 1988-93, died on Oct. 26, 2021, at the age of 88. Roh was recently admitted to a hospital after his health deteriorated but failed to recover, his aides said. (Yonhap)

Chun's junta government was accused of ruthlessly cracking on the 1980 uprising in Gwangju, leaving more than 200 dead and 1,800 others wounded, according to conservative official data.

Chun named Roh as the presidential candidate of the ruling party in 1987 amid large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations in Seoul and other major cities.

With an eye on the presidency, Roh started to distance himself from Chun.

On June 29, 1987, Roh unveiled eight-point political reforms, known as "June 29 Declaration."

Among the key points of the declaration were a new democratic constitution, direct presidential election and releases of two leading politicians -- Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam. The two Kims also later became presidents of South Korea.

As the two Kims, then prominent opposition leaders, failed to field a united candidate, the 1987 presidential election became a three-way race among Roh and the two Kims. Roh won the election by a narrow margin and assumed office in February 1988, becoming the nation's first directly elected president since the military-backed dictatorship.

In his inauguration address, Roh said he would improve ties with nations that have different ideologies. He aggressively pursued diplomatic relations with socialist nations under his trademark foreign policy known as "Nordpolitik," or Northward Policy, during his five-year presidency until 1993.

Roh's government established diplomatic ties with China and Russia. It also set up formal ties with eastern European nations such as Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

In 1991, South and North Korea were simultaneously admitted to the United Nations. At that time, Roh's government adopted a key agreement for North Korean policy, setting the stage for developing inter-Korean relations.

This file photo dated Dec. 14, 1990, shows South Korean President Roh Tae-woo (L) shaking hands with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev prior to their summit talks at the Kremlin in Moscow. Roh, who served as president from 1988-93, died on Oct. 26, 2021, at the age of 88. Roh was recently admitted to a hospital after his health deteriorated but failed to recover, his aides said. (Yonhap)

Roh also promised to open an "era of ordinary people" and opened up the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae for a sightseeing program. He was also in office when South Korea hosted the 1988 Seoul Olympics, a landmark event that raised the nation's global profile as an economically vibrant and democratic country.

His post-presidential life was met with trials and illness.

Driven by an anti-corruption campaign in 1993 by then-President Kim Young-sam, Roh and Chun went on trial for bribery.

In 1996, Roh and Chun were convicted of corruption and mutiny for their role in the 1979 military coup and in the brutal crackdown on the 1980 pro-democracy uprising in Gwangju.

Roh was sentenced to 17 years in prison and faced around 260 billion won (US$223 million) in fines. He was pardoned in 1997 under the government of then-President Kim Young-sam.


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