A president unforgivenFormer President Chun Doo Hwan passed away Tuesday, one month after his Military Academy classmate Rho Tae-woo, who succeeded him as president. With the passing of these two leaders, our memories of generals-turned-presidents also will fade away.
The legacy of Chun remains controversial 33 years after he stepped down in February 1988. His private funeral testifies to the convolution of his seven-and-half-year presidency. He not only took power through a coup after the assassination of President Park Chung Hee in October 1979, but also turned Gwangju into a bloodbath in May 1980. And yet, he was reelected president with fanfare through the introduction of an indirect presidential election system the following year.
Aside from the issue of presidential legitimacy, the controversy over his role in the Gwangju massacre will follow Chun into the grave. He received punishment on several occasions, including life imprisonment on charges of rebellion, homicide and bribery, on top of his self-imposed seclusion for 769 days at a remote Buddhist temple.
Chun was fundamentally an authoritarian leader as evidenced by his unfettered repression of democracy and labor movements, which led to the tragic deaths in 1987 of two college students — one from police torture and the other from a tear gas bomb — which led to a massive wave of democracy demands by white-collar workers. Yet Chun chose a path different from other generals-turned-leaders of Third World countries. At the height of the 1987 crusade for democracy, he accepted the direct presidential election system. Former Prime Minister Lee Hong-koo called it a “successful — and very rare — voluntary retreat of a military regime from power.”
His economic team tackled three challenges — growth, inflation and the balance of payments — at the same time by liquidating a number of insolvent enterprises and adroitly riding the wave of the so-called three-lows — low oil prices, low interest rates and a low (weak) Korean won. As a result, the Korean economy enjoyed its best days ever. His team’s focus on the economy and his trust in economic experts helped the government maintain sound fiscal health. Chun’s successful staging of the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Seoul Olympics let the world know Korea had arrived.
In his 2017 memoir, Chun expressed a hope for the “replacement of the hatred and anger at me with tolerance and faith in truth.” Yet he did not accept responsibility for the Gwangju massacre nor ever apologize. He saw himself as a victim of “political tricks.” Chun has left behind many questions about himself and his very mixed record.