Roh Tae-woo, first freely elected South Korea leader, dies

South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun. (Kim Kyung-Je/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Roh Tae-woo, a former South Korean general who became the country’s first democratically elected president after being forced by massive street protests to hold open polls, has died. He was 88.

The former president died at a hospital in Seoul, where he was recently admitted after his health deteriorated, the Yonhap News Agency reported Tuesday, citing his aides. He is survived by his wife, former first lady Kim Ok-suk, and a daughter and son, Yonhap said.

Roh’s presidency from 1988 to 1993 was marked by historic diplomatic accomplishments that included South Korea’s ascension to the United Nations and marred by massive corruption that culminated with his conviction three years after leaving office.

South Korea’s economy and per capita GDP almost doubled under Roh and the country’s new-found prowess was on display when Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics. In a country forged at the start of the Cold War, he used its collapse to chart a new path for South Korea’s diplomacy and its relations with North Korea, an adversary created in the clash of the U.S. and Soviet superpowers.

His tenure in office was also marred by labor unrest and inflation that threatened the “Korean economic miracle.” Industrial wages doubled in two years. For the country’s giant “chaebol,” or family-run conglomerates, manufacturing took a back seat to real estate speculation, angering ordinary people who could no longer afford their homes. By 1991, the government estimated total land value equaled 70% of that of the entire U.S.

Gwangju uprising

For many in South Korea, Roh will be forever associated with the bloody military crackdown against anti-government protesters in Gwangju in 1980, when armed troops put down a 10-day revolt that resulted in the death of at least 193 protesters. Roh, then a general, was the right-hand man to Chun Doo-hwan, a former general who became president by military coup and was Roh’s predecessor in office.

Roh was born in rural Korea and his father died when he was a child. He entered the military and rose through its ranks along with Chun. Chun picked Roh as his party’s candidate for the presidential election in 1987, a move seen as a military handover of power that led to snowballing pro-democracy rallies in Seoul and across the nation. Tear gas filled the streets and the unrest threatened to carry over to the 1988 Olympics.

Roh bowed to the pressure and allowed for an open vote, with prospects slim at the time that he could win. But opposition leaders Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung both entered the race and split the progressive vote, giving Roh a pathway to an unexpected victory, taking just 36.6% of the popular vote.


Once in office, Roh embarked on a policy known as “nordpolitik” where he tried to gain leverage from his country’s growing wealth and the shifting geopolitical landscape at the end of the Cold War to seek new ties with his country’s three main rivals — North Korea, Russia and China.

He established diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union during its fading days and then greatly increased trade with Russia after the fall of the communist party. In 1992, Roh’s government formally established diplomatic ties with China, which fought on behalf of North Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War and had been Pyongyang’ major benefactor for the decades that followed.

With North Korea’s two biggest Cold War backers warming up to Seoul, Roh used the upper hand he had with North Korea to ease tension on the heavily armed and divided peninsula. In 1991, his government reached a historic non-aggression pact with North Korean state founder Kim Il Sung that called for basic respect between the neighbors, charting a path toward reunification and allowing for economic cooperation.

The deal also led to South Korea and North Korea jointly joining the United Nations, which provided forces to fight on South Korea’s behalf during the Korean War.

Corruption conviction

He also worked to set a new tone with Japan, leading diplomacy that resulted in Tokyo issuing a historic apology for its 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula, as well an expression from then Emperor Akihito of “deepest regret” for the pain caused by Japan during the period.

Roh presided over a peaceful transfer of power in his single, five-year term and was succeeded by Kim Young-sam. Soon after leaving office, he was under investigation for corruption and arrested in 1995 for accepting hundreds of millions of dollars for a slush fund while president.

He and Chun were tried for corruption as well as mutiny and treason for their roles in the Gwangju killings and the coup that brought Chun to power. Chun was sentenced to death and Roh received a 22-1/2-year prison sentence.

But they were released under a presidential amnesty in 1997 and Roh mostly faded from the public’s view.


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