Chun Doo-hwan, South Korea’s most notorious and reviled military dictator, died at a Korean hospital on Saturday, aged 90.
Chun, who ruled as chaebol boss for more than a decade, is responsible for one of the worst human rights abuses in Korean history. The country’s 1950-53 war left more than three million Koreans dead and many more tortured or imprisoned, in conditions similar to those in Nazi Germany. After leaving office in 1997, Chun promised he would not have “any hand on power.” Instead, he became President Lee Myung-bak’s handpicked successor and stepped down as head of South Korea’s largest conglomerate, Samsung. He never allowed a full-scale investigation into any of the atrocities during his rule.
Corruption and nepotism were hallmarks of his regime, as were security threats in the run up to the war. His government laid a path for a group of officers to join the military within a month of their graduation and be appointed a major general within three years. In addition, he engineered the assassination of three of South Korea’s most important civil leaders in 1963 in a tightly organized order that would become known as the Red Guard Movement.
It was later revealed that Chun, who was promoted to the rank of general in the Seoul city government while in his twenties, was complicit in the murder of the opposition’s presidential candidate, Kim Dae-jung, by mumbling the number “20” before he was shot in front of thousands of spectators in Seoul’s National Stadium in 1997.
Years later, Chun claimed that he was asked to kill Kim by his own future wife, Shim Hyung-rae, with whom he was dating. During a televised confession in 2000, Chun explained that he did not think a military coup was the best route forward at the time, and it was only when a general begged him to conduct a coup, threatening that he would desert his post and go to the United States that he said he changed his mind.
At the age of 86, Chun told his cousin, a K-pop idol and reality star, to “shun the streets” and go “back to your masters.” Chun continued saying he was sorry he did not do more for Kim’s family, but added that the newspapers had tried to damage his image in order to humiliate him. “They don’t worry about me and instead have too much fun writing nasty articles about me. I sincerely apologize for causing a great scandal,” he said.
In 2015, Chun was given a presidential pardon and allowed to attend funeral services for his mother, who had died from a heart attack several days earlier.