Former President Roh Tae-woo dies - Korea Times
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Former President Roh Tae-woo dies

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Former President Roh Tae-woo takes the oaths of office during his inauguration ceremony at the National Assembly on Feb. 25, 1988. Yonhap
Former President Roh Tae-woo takes the oaths of office during his inauguration ceremony at the National Assembly on Feb. 25, 1988. Yonhap

By Nam Hyun-woo

Former President Roh Tae-woo died Tuesday at the age of 88, leaving behind a checkered political career. He was the first Korean president sworn in through a direct election since 1971 and made efforts to broaden the country's international ties as well as introducing the country's National Health Insurance plan.

According to his aides, Roh was being treated at Seoul National University Hospital for a chronic illness, but failed to recover. He had not made any public appearance for nearly two decades after his health weakened following surgery for prostate cancer in 2002.

Roh was the 13th president of Korea serving from 1988 to 1993. Before taking office, he led the Democratic Justice Party, was a member of the 12th National Assembly, an interior minister and defense security commander.

Born in Dec. 4, 1932, in a rural area of Daegu, Roh entered the Korea Military Academy ― after graduating high school ― where he met Chun Doo-hwan, who was president before Roh.

During the early stages of the Park Chung-hee dictatorship (1963 to 1971), Roh and Chun founded a "private military group" called Hanahoe, whose members spearheaded a 1979 military coup, allowing Chun to seize power in the wake of Park's death.

Roh was given a number of key jobs in Chun's authoritarian administration, and named to succeed him during a June 10 "primary" of the Democratic Justice Party.

Former President Roh Tae-woo announces the June 29 Declaration, in which he accepted calls for a direct presidential election system, June 29, 1987. Yonhap
Former President Roh Tae-woo announces the June 29 Declaration, in which he accepted calls for a direct presidential election system, June 29, 1987. Yonhap

However, as pro-democracy demonstrations spread across the country, Roh accepted demands for a direct presidential election system through the June 29 Declaration, and the country's Constitution was amended to introduce this.

Despite the pro-democracy movement, the opposition were divided into multiple factions, thus allowing Roh to become president.

He is remembered by some for his election catchphrase "Ordinary man's era," which he used to dilute his image as a former general and successor to Chun.

During his tenure, he formed ties with socialist states and promoted inter-Korean exchanges. He also introduced a nationalized health service, which these days is regarded as one of the most advanced public healthcare systems in the world for its wide coverage.

Former Presidents Roh Tae-woo, second from left, and Chun Doo-hwan, right, hold hands as they stand trial for their role in the 1979 military coup and brutal crackdown on a 1980 pro-democracy movement in Gwangju, Aug. 26, 1996. Korea Times file
Former Presidents Roh Tae-woo, second from left, and Chun Doo-hwan, right, hold hands as they stand trial for their role in the 1979 military coup and brutal crackdown on a 1980 pro-democracy movement in Gwangju, Aug. 26, 1996. Korea Times file

Two years after leaving office, Roh ― alongside Chun ― was put on trial for his role in the 1979 military coup and brutal crackdown on the 1980 pro-democracy movement in Gwangju, and sentenced to 17 years of prison terms in April 1997 after being found guilty. He was released from prison on a presidential pardon in December that year.

Following this then, he rarely made public appearances. The last time he attended a public event was the inauguration of former President Roh Moo-hyun in 2003.

Like Chun, Roh did not apologize to the victims of the Gwangju movement, though his son, Jae-heon, made an apology on his behalf last year when he visited the May 18th National Cemetery in Gwangju and apologized to bereaved family members.

He is survived by his wife Kim Ok-sook and two children: a son Jae-heun who is a lawyer in New York, and a daughter So-young who is a director at an arts museum in Seoul. The latter is currently in the process of divorcing her husband Chey Tae-won, chairman of SK Group.


Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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