Chun Doo-hwan, North Korea’s old nemesis who led South Korea to economic reform, dies at 90

Chun Doo-hwan, who ruled South Korea as military dictator from 1980 to 1987, has died at the age of 90. The former leader had long suffered from Parkinson’s disease and complications from pneumonia, CNN reports. He served as president from 1980 to 1987, a period that was marked by intense economic and political reform in the country. His hand-picked successor, Roh Tae-woo, took office in 1988 and successfully introduced democratic reforms, which Chun, who had once been a member of the ruling National Assembly, fought back. “Chun Doo-hwan was a symbol of political oppression,” political writer Na Suk-in told BBC. “But like other authoritarian leaders, he was the normal leader, but with the odd twists of fate that their rule began off badly and ended in a terrible catastrophe.” He is survived by his wife and three children.

Chun is also credited with taking Seoul to the brink of war with North Korea during a highly-publicized summit in 1990. On Feb. 27, the day following his inauguration, the general suspended diplomatic relations with North Korea, which had only just reconnected with South Korea in 1996, The Washington Post reports. He is believed to have been motivated by the rise of rival conservative presidents who were eager to oppose economic ties with North Korea. “The willingness of Chun Doo-hwan to meet face-to-face with Kim Jong Il was a gift to the people,” history professor Cho Yoon-ok, a critic of Chun’s regime, told CNN. “President Roh Tae-woo and President Kim Dae-jung’s popularity soared after their summit in Pyongyang.”

“I want to be a doctor, professor and a writer,” he said before he retired in 1998. He was arrested shortly after South Korea’s transition to democracy, but his trial was deemed unlawful by South Korea’s Supreme Court. In 2007, he died, his favorite birthday, as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. During his time in power, he created many political prisoners, but was also seen as the father of South Korea’s democratic process. “Though he used his power to curb threats from North Korea and strengthen the economy, Chun’s legacy is overshadowed by his three decades of authoritarian rule that many Koreans believe cemented that nation’s isolation,” Channel News Asia reports.

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