Last month, Chun’s army friend and another ex-president Roh Tae-woo, who played a key role in the 1979 coup, died at the age of 88. Roh never directly apologised over the crackdown too.
“Gwangju is truly a huge pain in our country’s modern history. Chun and Roh were the only two people who could have brought a historic closure to such pains,” said Jang Seung-Jin, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University. Jang said it was “very regrettable” that both leaders died without apologising and disclosing the full details of the crackdown.
Jang added that South Koreans remain divided over the legacy of their past military rulers. He said that “fake news” about the Gwangju crackdown has been fed by Chun’s refusal to fully acknowledge what happened.
“The only reaction I had to the news of his death was ‘wow, he’s finally gone’,” said Byun Hye-min, an office worker in Seoul. Byun noted there was still a lot of “anger” about “the things he did and his refusal to apologise”.
Chun’s rule was also marred by deadly North Korean attacks, though he sought reconciliation with the North during his time in power.
In 1983, North Korean commandos triggered a bomb that targeted Chun during a visit to Myanmar. Chun narrowly escaped injury in the attack, which killed 21 people, including several South Korean government ministers. In 1987, North Korean agents bombed a South Korean airliner, killing all 115 people on board.
At home, public anger over his dictatorship led to massive street protests in 1987, forcing Chun to accept a constitutional revision to introduce direct presidential elections, which were considered as the start of South Korea’s transition to democracy
Roh, the governing party candidate, won a hotly contested December 1987 election, largely due to a splitting of the vote between liberal opposition candidates Kim Dae-jung and his chief rival, Kim Young-sam.
During Roh’s presidency, Chun took refuge for two years in a Buddhist temple in the face of massive public criticism. After Roh left office in 1993, Kim Young-sam became president and had both Chun and Roh stand trial as part of a reform drive. The two ex-presidents were convicted of mutiny and treason over the coup and the Gwangju crackdown, as well as corruption. Chun was sentenced to death and Roh to 22½ years in prison.
Kim Young-sam eventually pardoned the two former presidents in late 1997 at the request of then President-elect Kim Dae-jung, who sought greater national reconciliation to revive the economy, hit by an Asian foreign exchange crisis.
When Roh died on October 26, there was a rare outpouring of public sympathy for him, with high-profile figures paying respects to the former leader and the government holding a public funeral for him.
Though Roh never directly apologised over the crackdown, his son repeatedly visited a Gwangju cemetery to pay respects to the victims and apologised on behalf of his father, who was bed-ridden in the 10 years before his death.
Presidential spokesperson Park Kyung-mee expressed condolences to Chun’s family, but added it was regrettable that the former leader had failed to apologise for the Gwangju events before his death. She said the Blue House doesn’t plan to send mourning flowers or any official representative to pay respects.
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