Roh Tae-woo, first freely elected South Korea leader, dies at 88

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) – Mr 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 on Tuesday (Oct 26), citing his aides.

Mr 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 Mr 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 US and Soviet superpowers.

His tenure in office was also marred by labour 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 equalled 70 per cent of that of the entire US.

Gwangju uprising

For many in South Korea, Mr 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.

Mr Roh, then a general, was the right-hand man to Mr Chun Doo-hwan, a former general who became president by military coup and was Mr Roh’s predecessor in office.

Mr 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 Mr Chun.

Mr Chun picked Mr 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.

In this photo taken in 1996, Mr Roh-Tae-woo (left) and Mr Chun Doo-hwan stand in prison uniforms in a courtroom on trial in Seoul. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Tear gas filled the streets and the unrest threatened to carry over to the 1988 Olympics.

Mr 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 Mr Roh a pathway to an unexpected victory, taking just 36.6 per cent of the popular vote.

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Once in office, Mr 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, Mr 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, Mr 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 neighbours, 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.

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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.

In this photo taken in 1990, Mr Roh Tae-woo (left) toasts with Japan’s Emperor Akihito during an imperial banquet hosted by the emperor at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Roh presided over a peaceful transfer of power in his single, five-year term and was succeeded by Mr 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 Mr Chun were tried for corruption as well as mutiny and treason for their roles in the Gwangju killings and the coup that brought Mr Chun to power.

Mr Chun was sentenced to death and Mr Roh received a 22-1/2-year prison sentence.

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

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