Chun Doo-hwan, South Koreas Most Vilified Ex-Military Dictator, Dies at 90


While his father, Chun Sang-woo, ran from debt-collectors and Japanese police officers (after pushing one of them off a cliff), his mother, Kim Jeom-mun, had high expectations for Doo-hwan, one of their four sons. When a Buddhist fortuneteller predicted that her three protruding frontal teeth would block the boy’s path to future glory, she rushed into her kitchen and yanked them out with a pair of tongs, according to “Chun Doo-hwan: Man of Destiny,” an authorized biography published after his coup.

After finishing vocational high school, Doo-hwan gave up going to college because he could not pay tuition. Instead, he joined the Korea Military Academy, where he practiced boxing and captained its soccer team as a goalie. (As president, he used to call the head coach of South Korea’s national soccer team in the middle of a match to dictate game strategy.)

General Chun was serving as head of the military’s intelligence command in late 1979 when Mr. Park was assassinated by the director of K.C.I.A., his spy agency, during a drinking party. Mr. Chun and his army friends — mostly officers like Mr. Roh who hailed from his home province in the southeast of South Korea — arrested their boss and martial-law commander, the army chief of staff, Gen. Jeong Seung-hwa, and moved their troops into Seoul to complete his largely bloodless coup.

“It was a dirty rebellion that served no other purpose than to satisfy Chun Doo-hwan’s personal greed,” General Jeong said later. He said Mr. Chun’s cronies had flogged and waterboarded him to extract a false confession that he had been complicit in Mr. Park’s assassination.

Mr. Chun placed the country under a martial law, closing Parliament and universities and detaining prominent dissidents, including the two main opposition leaders, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. In May 1980, people in Gwangju, Kim Dae-jung’s political home base, rose up in protest, chanting, “Down with Chun Doo-hwan!”

Troops moved in, wielding batons and bayonets and opening fire. Some protesters armed themselves with weapons stolen from police stations. The crackdown cost at least 191 lives by official count, including 26 soldiers and police officers. Victims’ families said the death toll was much higher.

Mr. Chun’s military junta later sentenced Kim Dae-jung to death on a false charge of instigating the Gwangju uprising at the behest of North Korea.