Roh Tae-woo, South Korean Leader as It Moved Toward Democracy, Dies at 88

The precedent president of South Korea, Roh Tae-woo, an important player in a 1979 coup who also became president later in a significant democratic election before the end of his turbulent career in politics in prison, has succumbed to death on Tuesday in hospital in the capital of Seoul. He was 88 years old.

Roh Was Critically Ill and Died While Dealing With a Degenerative Disorder

The head of Seoul National University Hospital, Kim Yon-us, disclosed in a news conference that, Roh Tae-woo, who mastered South Korea as a president from the period 1988-1993, lost his life due to certain complexities by multiple sicknesses following his condition deteriorated whilst coping up with a degenerative disorder.

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Key Role in Making Chun Doo-hwan the President

In December 1979, military coup Roh was a chief player in making his army friend and coup leader Chun Doo-hwan president following their guide, dictator Park Chung-hee, was killed after ruling for 18 years.


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Roh headed his army division into Seoul and teamed up with the other military leaders for tasks to occupy the capital. In the next year under the leadership of Chun, the military and other coup leaders introduced a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy opposers in the southern city of Gwangju, which resulted in taking lives of nearly 200 people, in one of the awful moments in the violent modern past of South Korea.

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Beginning of Evolution to Democracy

Roh was the hand-picked beneficiary of Chun, which would have made sure him the presidency in a simple indirect election. But an enormous pro-democracy uprising in 1987 bound Chun and Roh to agree to a direct presidential election that was considered as the beginning of the evolution to democracy of South Korea.

Despite his military background, Roh established a mediocre and cordial image across the campaign, claiming himself to be an “average person.” He conquers the furiously contested election held in December 1987, special thanks to division in liberal votes between rival candidates Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Young-sam, later both of them became presidents.

Establishment of Diplomatic Relations With Communist Nations

During his tenure of Five-year, Roh intensely followed connections with communist nations under his “Northward Diplomacy” as socialism fell in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe vanished. South Korea was severely anti-communist then due to its conflict with North Korea, however, it established diplomatic relations with a communist nation for the very first time under Roh, in 1989 with Hungary, the year when the Berlin Wall fell and communism collapsed throughout entire Eastern Europe.

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In 1990, Roh’s government managed to build relations with the Soviet Union and in 1992 with China. Under Roh, the terms with North Korea were enhanced, with both sides withholding their very first prime ministers’ talks, picking up a landmark combined statement on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and teaming up with the United Nations at the same moment.

Previously, Roh overlooked the conducting of the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, the final Olympics of the Cold War times that indicated how South Korea had re-established itself through the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War.

The 1988 games were forbidden by North Korea. Connections between the two Koreas have been suffering since then with lots of highs and lows. Despite several denuclearization requests which also include the one made under Roh’s presidency, still North Korea keeps its nuclear weapons program which it sees as a medium of staying alive.

On domestic politics, Roh was seen by most people as deficient, appealing, and hostile leadership. “Mul (Water) Tae-woo,” his nickname, claimed his administration had no taste and no color. Still, he procured more exposure by entitling more political criticism, in opposition with his authoritarian predecessors, Chun and Park. The governments headed by Chun and Park generally made use of security laws to conceal political competitors and prohibit speech under the pretense of protecting against civil disorder and North Korean hazards.

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After his descendant, Kim Young-sam inspected the coup and military-led crackdown, Roh was captured, condemned of treason, mutiny, and corruption, and sentenced to imprisonment for 22 years and six months. Chun was sentenced to death.

Reduction in Punishment for Both Chun and Roh

The Supreme Court decreased those punishments to 17 years for Roh and life imprisonment for Chun. In late 1997 Both Roh and Chun were released after spending about two years in prison, under special forgiveness appealed by Kim Dae-Jung, then President-elect, who needed national reconciliation amidst an Asian financial crisis.

Roh had preferred to stay away from the public eye mostly after he set free from prison, staying away from all political activities and speeches. In the past few years, he struggled with prostate cancer, cerebellar atrophy, asthma, and other health illnesses.

In April last year, his daughter, Roh So-young, took to Facebook that her father had been bedridden for the last decade and not being capable of even speaking or moving his body. She stated that sometimes her father made eye gestures for communicating but seemed to “have a tearful face” when he was not able to express his emotions and thoughts appropriately.

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Roh Jae-Cheon, Roh’s son, continuously proposed an apology upon the 1980 crackdowns and went to visit a Gwangju cemetery on behalf of his bed-ridden father to pay salutations to the victims buried there 

But diverse to Roh’s family, Chun, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and blood cancer as per reports, has yet to extend an apology upon the crackdowns. In August last year, Chun was seen at a Gwangju court to guard himself against charges that he slandered a now-expired Catholic priest who had remarked of seeing troops of Chun shooting at rebels from helicopters in Gwangju. After 20 minutes, Chun took a leave from the court, while suffering from breathing issues. In his account, Chun defined the priest as “a shameless liar.”

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According to South Korean media reports earlier Both Roh and Chun were directed by a court to repay hundreds of millions of dollars they accumulated unlawfully. Roh has already repaid his part but Chun hasn’t repaid the same till now.

Roh was able to fight for his life with the help of his wife and their two children.


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