Chun Doo-hwan’s brutal rule left South Korea scarred
THE ERA of strongman rule in South Korea faded a little further into the mists of time on November 23rd when Chun Doo-hwan (pictured, right), the country’s last military dictator, died at home in Seoul at the age of 90. His death follows that last month of Roh Tae-woo (left), Mr Chun’s close associate and successor as president. Yet the reactions to Mr Chun’s death suggest it will be a while until the legacy of the country’s pre-democratic rulers is left to historians.Mr Chun’s stint in power was characterised by the violent suppression of political dissent. A high-ranking member of the junta under President Park Chung-hee, the general took power in a coup following Mr Park’s assassination in 1979, aided by Mr Roh. He imposed martial law and closed universities. When protests against that policy erupted in the southern city of Gwangju in 1980, he sent in troops with guns blazing to quash them, resulting in hundreds of deaths. He ruled until 1987, when widespread protests against his attempt to have Mr Roh succeed him through an indirect vote forced him to hold elections. With the opposition split, Mr Roh ended up winning. After democratisation both men were tried on charges related to the coup that brought Mr Chun to power, the massacre in Gwangju and corruption. Mr Chun received a commuted death sentence, Mr Roh was sentenced to a long stint in prison. But both were pardoned by President Kim Young-sam in 1997 in a gesture of national reconciliation.In later years Mr Roh kept a low public profile, occasionally paying his respects to the victims of Gwangju through his children. Mr Chun, though, was openly unrepentant. He denied that there had been indiscriminate killings of civilians and refused to pay back some $80m of what prosecutors said were the proceeds of corruption, complaining instead about his dire financial straits. When he was sued for defamation by a witness to the Gwangju uprising for denying that helicopters had fired on civilians, he excused himself from court hearings citing ill health, only to be spotted on the golf course.Today some South Koreans remain more incensed by Mr Chun’s lack of contrition than others. The government, whose political base is made up of the democracy activists who fought against dictatorship and which has sought to enshrine the “spirit” of the Gwangju uprising in the constitution, organised a state funeral for Mr Roh in recognition of his shepherding the country towards democracy. But it issued a terse response to Mr Chun’s death, expressing regret that he had neither told the truth nor shown remorse about his role in history. There would be no state funeral. The president would not be sending flowers.By contrast the conservative opposition, some of whose supporters retain some fondness for the achievements of the pre-democratic era, was more equivocal. Lee Jun-seok, the opposition leader said the party would send a wreath, and individual members were free to attend the funeral. While left-wing outlets denied Mr Chun his presidential title in their obituaries and stressed the brutal suppression of the uprising in Gwangju and his refusal to take responsibility for it, right-wing media made some allowance for his successful economic policy and his eventual voluntary retreat from power. Mr Chun may be dead, but the debate over the generals’ legacy lives on.