Chun Doo Hwan (born 1931), an army general turned politician, was elected to a seven-year term in 1981 as president of the Republic of Korea (South Korea).
Chun Doo Hwan was born on January 18, 1931, in a remote mountainous farm village in Hapch'ongun, South Kyongsang Province. He was the second son of a family of ten children. He studied the Chinese classics at an early age but started his formal primary school rather late. In 1940, at the age of nine, his family migrated to Manchuria where he entered Horan primary school in Jilin Province. After a little more than a year, his family moved back to Korea and settled down in Taegu, the third largest city in Korea. Following a period of irregular education, Chun was finally admitted to Hido Primary School in Taegu as a fourth grader in April 1944. It is said that Chun earned part of his school expenses as a newspaper delivery boy to help his father who was engaged in the Chinese medicine business. In 1947 Chun was admitted to a six-year Taegu technical middle school, only to have this education interrupted by the onset of the Korean War in June 1950.
Chun passed the competitive entrance examination to the newly-inaugurated four-year course in the Korean Military Academy in December 1951. For the next four years from 1952 to 1955, which included the Korean War years, Chun spent his days as a cadet at the academy. As a cadet Chun was oriented more athletically than intellectually, serving at one time as captain of the academy's soccer team. He had ample opportunity to display his leadership role while a cadet. His close classmates, such as Roh Tae Woo and Kim Bok-dong, who would later play important roles in assisting the military coups led by Chun in 1979 and 1980, were more intellectually-oriented than was Chun. In 1955 Chun was commissioned as a second lieutenant, graduating with the first class to receive four years of training at the Korean Military Academy.
In December 1958 Captain Chun married Lee Soon Ja, the daughter of a retired general, Lee Kyudong, who once had served in the Korean Army Headquarters and was also a military academy classmate of former President Park Chung Hee. Lee's two uncles were also army officers. At the time of their wedding Chun was recruited as a founding member of the paratrooper special forces stationed at a base in Kimpo, outside of Seoul. In 1959 Chun went to the United States for a five-month training program on psychological warfare at the United States special combat school at Fort Black in North Carolina.
In April 1960 Chun became operations officer in the special forces and was on United States-Republic of Korea joint maneuvers in Okinawa when the April 19, 1960, student revolution took place in Korea. This resulted in the overthrow of President Syngman Rhee's government. On May 16, 1961, then-Major General Park Chung Hee and his followers led a military coup ousting the Posun Yun government. Chun gave Park his allegiance and service and was credited, for instance, with having persuaded the cadets of the Korean Military Academy to march through the Seoul streets in support of Park. During the junta rule in the following months Chun was appointed one of Park's senior secretaries in charge of civilian petitioning affairs.
The subsequent career pattern of Chun in the military was smooth and rapid. He served in the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and at the Army headquarters and trained as a paratrooper. It is said that he took part in paratrooper sky jumping exercises more than 500 times. As a lieutenant colonel Chun became deputy commander of the First Paratrooper Special Forces in 1966 and battalion commander of the Metropolitan Defense Division in 1967.
In November 1969 Chun, now promoted to full colonel, served in the Army headquarters as senior aide to the Army chief of staff. He was the first in his class to be promoted to full colonel, and later general, although ranking only in the middle range of his class of 156 graduates. In November 1970 Chun volunteered to serve in Vietnam and was made commander of the 29th Regiment of the Republic of Korea 9th Division. After one year's field experience in combat Chun returned home to assume the position of commander of the First Paratrooper Special Forces. Incidentally, while in Vietnam Chun allegedly suggested to President Park in a letter the idea of establishing "Democracy Korean style," which Park took favorably. Park later wrote back that he had made an address on this theme before to the graduating class of the Korean Military Academy in 1971.
As of January 1, 1973, Chun was made brigadier general and was appointed to serve in the Blue House (presidential mansion) Protective Forces as assistant deputy chief. On February 1, 1977, he was promoted to major general, and in 1978 he was appointed as commander of the Republic of Korea First Division. It was during his tenure as commander of the First Division that on January 10, 1978, his unit was credited with having uncovered North Korea's third invasion tunnel along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) near Panmunjom. On March 5, 1979, Major General Chun was appointed to a key position, commander of the Army Security Command, which subsequently enabled him to plot coups in 1979 and 1980.
On October 26, 1979, President Park was assassinated, ending 18 years of military rule. A civilian government under Choi Kyu-ha took office. As commander of the powerful Army Security Command, Chun investigated the Park assassination. On December 12, 1979, Chun acted against his military superiors by arresting Martial Law Commander General Chung Sung-hwa, who was also the Army chief-of-staff, in a violent confrontation charging him with possible implication in the assassination plot. This was the first of the two military coups which subsequently led to the founding of South Korea's Fifth Republic, officially proclaimed with the adoption of a new constitution by national referendum on October 22, 1980.
Meanwhile, on May 17, 1980, then-Lieutenant General Chun led the second coup establishing a military government to replace that of Choi. After proclaiming martial law and prohibiting assemblies and free speeches, Chun and his fellow coup leaders, including General Roh Tae Woo, went on to arrest the opposition leaders. Dissident Kim Dae-jung and New Democratic Party President Kim Young Sam, as well as the political leaders of the old regime, such as former prime minister and Democratic Republican Party President Kim Jong-pil were among those arrested. The arrest of Kim Dae-jung, however, led to a nationwide protest by Kim's followers and to the bloody riots of Kwangju, the provincial capital of South Cholla, Kim's home province. The Kwangju riot initially started as a campus demonstration, but turned into a major insurrection lasting for nine days between May 18 and May 27. Chun dispatched a paratrooper unit to recapture the city. In the process many civilians and rebel students were killed. Casualties were estimated at around 183 dead and several hundred wounded, according to an official account, although eyewitness accounts placed the figure much higher—at over 2,000 dead and wounded. "Kwangju" became an emotional and evocative issue for many South Koreans, who blamed Chun for what they considered a massacre and national disgrace.
During his tenure as president, Chun maintained a strong, sometimes brutal police state, but at the same time encouraged and oversaw the country's vast economic growth. Overall, South Koreans enjoyed prosperity and an improved standard living. He was invited to Washington, D.C. by U.S. President Ronald Reagan twice, in January 1981 and April 1985. He also paid an official state visit to Japan in October 1984, the first such visit by a Korean head of state. He actively toured other foreign countries, including the five ASEAN countries in 1981, four African countries and Canada in 1982, and several Asian countries in 1983. It was during his 1983 diplomatic tour that he was the target of an assassination attempt by a bomb explosion in Rangoon, Burma, on October 9, reportedly the work of North Korean commandos, which killed some of his closest aides. He also pursued an active policy of North-South Korean dialogue and negotiation on unification, including a proposal for a summit meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas.
The challenge of his administration was to maintain internal political stability, continue the momentum of economic growth, and successfully complete the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, in which North Korea refused to participate. Despite the public's skepticism, Chun left office, as promised, when his seven-year presidential term expired in 1988—though not as he originally planned. In 1987 he named his long-time friend and military colleague, Roh Tae Woo, as his successor. Violent demonstrations erupted until Roh made a dramatic speech endorsing direct presidential elections, restoration of civil rights for Kim Dae Jung and other dissidents, and lifting press restrictions. The turbulence was quelled, and Roh went on to win the presidential elections despite charges of fraud.
Chun left power amid widespread accusations of corruption, and was embarrassed by an investigation that officially spared him but sent several family members (also in government) to prison for having raised illegal funds from corporations. The former president sought to mollify public anger by leaving his luxurious home in Seoul to live an ascetic life in a Buddhist monastery for over a year. During Roh's presidency, which lasted until 1993, South Korea moved steadily toward a more democratic government and gained respect around the world. Domestically, however, accusations of fraud still persisted, particularly against Roh who faced charges of amassing a large slush fund while president.
A former dissident turned party leader, Kim Young Sam, was elected president in 1993—the first civilian to hold office after three decades of military leadership. Almost immediately, Kim came under pressure to right the wrongs of the military government's past transgressions. After a long investigation, former Presidents Chun and Roh were found to have initiated the 1979 coup, now referred to as a "premeditated military rebellion," that led them to power. At first, it appeared the two men would not be prosecuted; however, public outrage demanded that they be tried for staging the 1979 coup and the Kwangju massacre. They each faced separate bribery charges.
On December 3, 1995 the government reversed its decision, and announced the two men would be indicted for their actions in the 1979 coup, as well as the military action in Kwangju that crushed the uprising against martial law. Chun immediately denied the charges and protested by going on a hunger strike that lasted for 26 days, but recovered to stand trial in early 1996. The most serious charge, which can be punished by execution, was for sending troops to Kwangju with orders to kill demonstrators. In September he was convicted of mutiny and treason and sentenced to death for the 1979 coup that brought him to power and for instigating the massacre in Kwangju. A panel of three judges tried and sentenced the case (South Korea does not have juries). The court also convicted Rho, and sentenced him to 22 years in prison. In separate but related cases involving political bribes, nine leading businessmen, including the chairmen of Samsung and Daewoo and 21 former presidential aides and military officers, were convicted on charges of corruption or assisting the coup. All received jail terms of at least three years, except the chairman of the Samsung group whose two-year sentence was suspended.
Both men appealed their sentences. The Appeals Court overturned Chun's sentence of death (usually by hanging), and reduced it to life imprisonment. Rho's sentence was reduced to 17 years in prison. In a final appeal to Korea's Supreme Court, both sentences were upheld. The only remaining possibility for leniency was a presidential pardon, which was unlikely given the public's strong desire to rectify past military actions and corruption of power. Even President Kim was not above scrutiny as he faced increasing questions about his own relationship with the previous leaders and the possibility that he took substantial sums of money from them.
For Korea's political history since 1945 see: Young Whan Kihl, Politics and Policies in Divided Korea: Regimes in Contest (1984) and "Korea's Fifth Republic: Domestic Political Trends," in Journal of Northeast Asian Studies (June 1982). Additional articles can be found in World Press Review (November 1996).