Roh Tae-woo, coup plotter who became South Korea’s first directly elected president, dies

Former South Korean President Roh Tae-woo waving
Former South Korean President Roh Tae-woo waves to supporters and neighbors after his release from prison in 1997.

Former South Korean President Roh Tae-woo, a major player in a 1979 coup who later became president in a landmark democratic election before ending his tumultuous political career in prison, died Tuesday. He was 88.

Roh, who ruled South Korea as president from 1988-93, died of complications from various illnesses after his condition worsened while battling a degenerative disorder, Kim Yon-su, head of Seoul National University Hospital, told a news conference.

Roh was a key participant in the 1979 military coup that made his army friend and coup leader Chun Doo-hwan president after their mentor, dictator Park Chung-hee, was assassinated following 18 years of rule.


Roh led his army division into Seoul and joined other military leaders for operations to seize the capital. In the following year, the military under Chun and other coup leaders launched a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the southern city of Gwangju, in one of the darkest moments of South Korea’s turbulent modern history.

About 200 people were killed in the crackdowns in Gwangju, according to government records.

Roh was Chun’s hand-picked successor, which would have assured him the presidency in an easy indirect election. But months of massive pro-democracy uprisings in 1987 forced Roh and Chun to accept a direct presidential poll that was the start of South Korea’s transition to democracy.

The two Korean immigrants--one a longtime foe of South Korea’s military-backed government, the other a recently converted critic--were in an exultant mood as they awaited the arrival of the guest of honor for a ballroom banquet at the Hyatt Wilshire Hotel.

Despite his military background, Roh fashioned a moderate and genial image during the campaign, calling himself an “average person.” He eventually won the hotly contested election in December 1987, largely thanks to a split in liberal votes between opposition candidates Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, who both later became president.

During his five-year term, Roh aggressively pursued ties with communist nations under his “Northward Diplomacy” as communism fell in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union dissolved.

South Korea was then deeply anti-communist because of its rivalry with North Korea, but under Roh it opened diplomatic relations with a communist nation for the first time: Hungary, in 1989, the year when the Berlin Wall fell and communism crumbled across Eastern Europe.

Roh established relations with the Soviet Union in 1990 and with China in 1992. Relations with North Korea improved under Roh, with the two sides holding their first-ever prime ministerial talks in 1990, adopting a landmark joint statement on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and joining the United Nations at the same time.

The 1988 Games in Seoul proved to be the undoing of dictator Chun Doo Hwan.

Earlier, Roh oversaw the hosting of the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, the final Olympics of the Cold War era that showed how South Korea had rebuilt itself from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korea boycotted the 1988 games.

Ties between the rivals have since suffered ups and downs. Despite numerous denuclearization pledges — including the one made during Roh’s presidency — North Korea still maintains its nuclear weapons program, which it says is a means of survival.

On domestic issues, Roh was seen by many as lacking charisma and aggressive leadership qualities. His nickname, “Mul [Water] Tae-woo,” implied that his administration had no color or taste.

But he also brought more openness by allowing more political lampooning, in contrast with his authoritarian predecessors, Park and Chun. The governments led by those two men often used security laws to suppress political opponents and restrict speech under the pretext of guarding against civil disorder and North Korean threats.

In his later years as president, Roh concentrated on boosting domestic consumption to make up for exports that were slowed by global economic downturns, only to be dealt the lowest full-year growth rate of his tenure.

After his successor, Kim Young-sam, investigated the coup and military-led crackdown, Roh was arrested, convicted of mutiny, treason and corruption and received a 22½-year prison term. Chun was sentenced to death.

The Supreme Court reduced those sentences to life imprisonment for Chun and 17 years for Roh. Both were still ordered to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars they collected illegally.

After spending about two years in prison, both Roh and Chun were released in late 1997 under a special pardon requested by then-President-elect Kim Dae-jung, who sought national reconciliation amid the Asian financial crisis.

South Korea’s record turnout for its parliamentary election, despite the coronavirus, offers a blueprint for other countries.

Kim Dae-jung was a former dissident whom the military junta led by Chun and Roh had sentenced to death on trumped-up charges of masterminding the 1980 civil uprising.

Roh stayed mostly out of the public eye following his release from prison, refraining from political activities and speeches. In recent years, he suffered from prostate cancer, asthma, cerebellar atrophy and other health problems.

In April, his daughter, Roh So-young, wrote on Facebook that her father had been bed-ridden over the last 10 years without being able to speak or move. She said her father sometimes made eye movements to communicate but looked to “have a tearful face” when he failed to express his feelings and thoughts properly.

Roh’s son, Roh Jae-heon, repeatedly offered an apology over the 1980 crackdowns and visited a Gwangju cemetery on behalf of his father to pay respects to the victims buried there.

The Korean War ended 68 years ago, but South Korea is still trying to recover its soldiers’ remains.

Unlike Roh’s family, Chun, who reportedly suffers Alzheimer’s disease and a blood cancer, has yet to apologize over the crackdowns.

In August, he appeared at a Gwangju court to defend against charges that he defamed a now-deceased Roman Catholic priest who had testified to seeing Chun’s troops shooting at protesters from helicopters in Gwangju. Chun left the court after 20 minutes, complaining of breathing problems. In his memoir, Chun called the priest “a shameless liar.”

Roh and Chun were earlier ordered by a court to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars they collected illegally. Roh has paid back his shares, but Chun hasn’t done so, according to South Korean media reports.

Roh is survived by his wife and their two children.