Former South Korean strongman Choi Tae-hee dies at 90

Choi Tae-hee was a key figure in the country’s military dictatorship of the 1970s

A former South Korean military strongman has died in a hospital at the age of 90.

Choi Tae-hee was a key figure in the country’s military dictatorship of the 1970s, and was imprisoned in 1976-77 for plotting the assassination of South Korea’s then-president Park Chung-hee.

Choi’s son claimed he was tortured and denied access to his blind mother, who died in a Seoul prison hospital four years ago. The charges he faced were dropped, but he said later that his treatment left him with a ruptured esophagus.

Choi Tae-hee (right) leaves the South Korean court in 1976, during his trial for plotting to assassinate Park Chung-hee. Photograph: Hans-Peter Koseff/AP

In 2003, a South Korean appeals court set aside two decades of martial law imposed by Park, who was the country’s president from 1961-77.

Choi’s sentence of 18 years was reduced to 10, and he was released in 1980, which his son said had provoked “the worst period of poverty and destitution” in his father’s life. The family later returned to the US.

Choi’s capture and 1982 trial was the last major crack in the facade of immunity Park enjoyed in the aftermath of a US-backed invasion in the early 1960s, which saw all violent opposition to his rule crushed.

The 1980s saw a dramatic decline in support for the authoritarian rule of Park’s brother, both in the army and among average South Koreans.

The US, whose military base in the south of the country became the first ever major US occupation base in Asia, gave Park encouragement in re-establishing his rule, and in 1979 the following year Park stepped down. He died aged 83 in 1979.

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Choi Tae-hee’s son, Choi Guon, had long urged the government to complete his father’s legacy. Speaking of his death, he said: “We were trying for so long and didn’t give up. We wanted to restore his memory, and our nation. The family will be clean again.”

His son’s fate remains uncertain, though he has said he does not regret campaigning on his father’s behalf for two decades. Last year, a high court ruled that he could contest the sentences he was given. “I’m not much proud of myself. I am happy my family had worked so hard,” he said in an interview with the Hankyoreh newspaper.

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