General Chun Doo Hwan — an obscure, military man — took advantage of a power vacuum after Park Chung Hee’s assassination on October 26, 1979 and became the leader of South Korea by orchestrating a coup d'etat on December 12, 1979 that probably would have failed were it not for the support of soldiers under the command of General Roh Tae Woo, who later became the leader of South Korea, and the approval of the coup from the Hanahoe ("One-Way") military society.

Chun Doo Hwan (Jeun Du-hwan, born 1931) declared himself president of an unconstitutional body called the "Special Committee for National Security Measures." After rewriting the constitution, Chun was elected in a rigged election to a seven year term and promised to relinquish power after serving one term. His eight-year rule was noted for the corruption of his administration and mass pro-democracy protests. Chun is said to have amassed US$900 million during his years in office.

In an often told story, Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker: When Chun Doo Hwan’s mother “was trying to conceive a child, in the nineteen-twenties, she met a wandering monk who told her that she had the face of someone who would be the mother of a great man — unless her buckteeth got in the way of destiny. With dispatch, she knocked out her front teeth using a log. (Some accounts say that she used a rock.)...If it worked for the President’s mother, it could work for you. [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]

The theme of the Chun government was "Social Purification." Even though South Korea prospered and the economy grew under Chun, he is remembered most for his oppressive rule and his bald head. He declared martial law, presided over the Kwangju massacre, in which at least 200 people were killed, and had to be persuaded by U.S. officials not execute opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, another future leader of South Korea.

Chun Doo Hwan Era

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: Park Chung Hee was succeeded by Choi Kyu-hah, who instituted military rule. After a period of internal turmoil, Chun Doo Hwan was elected president (1980). Reforms were made to shift power to the national assembly, and the country's dynamic, export-oriented economy continued to grow. Labor unrest and general dissatisfaction with the government, however, led South Korean leaders to draw up a new constitution in 1987, which mandated popular election of the president and a reduction of the presidential term to five years.” [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Steven Borowiec wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “It was a chaotic time, with South Korea's economy booming but its politics still authoritarian. Contending that strict controls on civic and political rights were necessary to keep order, Chun cracked down on public gatherings and imprisoned dissidents, making him a feared leader. He nonetheless enjoyed U.S. support for much of his rule. "Stability in Seoul was a central U.S. objective, at times an overriding one," wrote Don Oberdorfer in "The Two Koreas," a contemporary history. "American officials were leery of undermining Chun and thereby destabilizing the country with unpredictable results." [Source: Steven Borowiec, Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2015]

“In 1988 Chun gave in to public pressure and left office, paving the way for South Korea's first democratic election. In doing so, he became the first South Korean president to give up office in a peaceful manner. Chun, though, is mainly remembered for presidential misdeeds, including the orchestration of the 1980 Kwangju massacre. He ordered troops to fire on student protesters in the southern city who were calling for him to step down. Hundreds were killed or injured. For his actions in Kwangju and the coup he led, Chun was sentenced to death in 1996. The following year he and Roh Tae Woo, another former military dictator, were pardoned and released from custody. Kim Young Sam, president at the time, said the pardons were intended to nurture national reconciliation. To this day, news outlets on both sides of the country's political divide are critical of Chun and his tenure."It's hard to find a good word for the butcher of Kwangju," said Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in modern Korea at Leeds University in England.


Transition After Park Chung Hee’s Assassination

Soon after Park's October 26, 1979 assassination, South Korea went through kaleidoscopic changes — intense and open competition for power, student upheavals, a military takeover, a gruesome massacre, and the emergence of a new authoritarian order. Since Park had concentrated virtually all political power around himself, his assassination created a political vacuum. One of his main pillars of power, the director of the Presidential Security Force, was assassinated with him; the director of the other major political instrument, the KCIA, was quickly arrested by the Martial Law Command for conducting the assassinations. In addition, the National Assembly, one-third of its members presidential appointees, had been rendered impotent by the yusin constitution rammed through by Park Chung Hee. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Ch'oe Kyu-ha, premier under Park, was elected president in December 1979 by the National Conference of Unification, a rubber stamp electoral college. Ch'oe had no independent political base. He reaffirmed the need for a new constitution in his December 21 inaugural speech, stating that a new constitution supported by a majority of the people would be adopted within a year and that a fair general election would be held soon afterward.

Even before his inauguration, Ch'oe, as acting president, had abolished Emergency Measure Number Nine. Several hundred individuals serving prison terms or being investigated on charges of violating that decree were released on December 8. One of those benefiting from the release was Kim Dae Jung, who had been under house arrest and whose civil rights were to be restored on February 29, 1980. Also affected were student activists who had been arrested for staging campus demonstrations.

Chun Doo Hwan Coup

In December 1979, Lieutenant General Chun Doo Hwan led a coup in which he and his military colleagues removed the army chief of staff and took effective control of the government. Chun Doo Hwan, as the head of the Defense Security Command, was responsible for conducting the investigation of Park's assassination. Chun used the factionalism rife within the military to assert his control over the army on December 12, 1979. He promptly set about uprooting the Park-era power elite and building a new political base. This power play, combined with increasing social and labor unrest, economic instability, and the factionalism within and between the ruling and opposition parties, set the scene for the military's consolidation of power and culminated in Chun's assumption of the presidency in August 1980. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Politics in South Korea in 1980 mainly revolved around framing a new constitution. The principal opposition party, the New Democratic Party under Kim Young Sam, advocated concluding the process by August 15, but President Ch'oe, evidently under military pressure, was not ready to expedite the constitutional process. The scheduling issue led to a major student upheaval in May 1980, followed by a military takeover.

Whatever counsel the civilian leaders may have offered Ch'oe, the military's position prevailed. Chun Doo Hwan, as head of the Defense Security Command, had already replaced the army chief of staff in December 1979 and had taken the command of the KCIA in April 1980.

On May 17, the military regime led by Gen. Chun Doo Hwan declared martial law, banned political activity, shut down universities and arrested opposition leaders Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam and scores of other politicians. The arrest of Kim Dae Jung and other arch enemies of Park was to be expected as soon as the military stepped in on May 17. But the arrest of Kim Jong Pil and other people who had been influential under Park came as a total surprise.

Chun's methodical and speedy actions after May 17, 1980 clearly revealed that he had a well-laid plan. He issued a decree closing down the colleges and universities and prohibiting all political gatherings. All publications and broadcasts were to receive prior censorship, criticism of the incumbent and past presidents was outlawed, and the manufacture and spreading of rumors were forbidden. Chun's plan aimed not only at quelling demonstrations but also at destroying the power base of all existing political figures and groups.

Political Parties in the Chun Doo Hwan Era

In the meantime, the country underwent a brisk process of political realignment. Although Park had organized and headed the Democratic Republican Party in 1963 to mobilize mass support behind his regime, by 1972 he had discarded it when he imposed the yusin constitution. As a result, the DRP had only a nominal existence at the time of Park's death. It was incumbent upon the new president of the DRP, Kim Jong Pil, to revive the party. The DRP had suffered a disastrous loss in the December 1978 National Assembly elections. This situation led to a call for "rectification" (chongp'ung) within the party, which meant removing certain top leaders who had attracted notoriety for illicit wealth and undemocratic political behavior. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

The New Democratic Party (NDP), the principal opposition party, also had its share of problems. Kim Young Sam was elected as NDP leader for three years in 1979, so his position would have been secure, had not the Ch'oe government restored Kim Dae Jung's civil rights. Even though Kim Dae Jung, the NDP presidential candidate in 1971, had been out of the political arena for more than seven years, he commanded a large political following. Because the NDP was expected to win the forthcoming election by a wide margin, the presidency of the republic was at stake in the negotiations for Kim Dae Jung's reinstatement in the party. In the end, negotiations broke off, and on April 7, 1980, Kim Dae Jung declared that he would no longer seek to rejoin the NDP.

Although Kim Young Sam and his supporters had waged a fierce political struggle against President Park toward the end of his rule, many of those in leadership positions in the NDP had tended to be accommodating to the Park regime.Kim Dae Jung and his followers, on the other hand, represented the active dissident students, intellectuals, and progressive Christians who had engaged in direct struggle against the Park regime. The chaeya seryok (literally, forces in the field, but the term also means an opposing political force) were more radical in orientation. Kim Dae Jung and his group wished to expedite the process of restoring democracy, even if it meant forcing the hands of Ch'oe and his supporters.

Student Demonstrations in 1980

While professional politicians engaged in the struggle for realignment, college students were restless for action. The students initially were concerned with campus affairs. As soon as the new semester began in March 1980, students on various campuses began to demand the removal of professors with close ties to the Park regime, and of university owner-presidents who had amassed fortunes by operating their institutions. They also demanded autonomy from government control. The students held rallies and on-campus demonstrations and in some cases occupied college offices. As a result of the unrest, many university presidents resigned.

In early May 1980, however, the students' slogans began to change. Students demanded that martial law be lifted immediately and that the "remnants of the yusin system," including Chun, be removed. They also demanded the guarantee of labor rights, the removal of "compradore capital," and the protection of farmers' rights. Although student demonstrations had been confined to their campuses when the issues raised concerned institutional matters, they how began to spill out into the streets.

The massive demonstrations by the students continued until May 16, when Premier Sin Hyon-hwak promised that the government would attempt to speed up the process of adopting a new constitution. Ch'oe even shortened his Middle Eastern trip by a day and returned home on the evening of May 17. Student demonstrations paralyzed the nation and sent politicians and government leaders to their council meetings. According to an unconfirmed report, Sin even offered his resignation to the president upon his return and advised the president to remove Chun.

Kwangju Uprising

On May 27, 1980, during anti-government demonstration in Kwangju (Gwangju) — a city of 600,000 people located 270 kilometers south of Seoul, in South Cholla Province — police open fired on crowds of demonstrators. The government admitted that 193 people were killed, but the real number of dead may be as high as 500, with 2,000 injured. This became known as the Kwangju Uprising. For a long time the South Korean government tried pretend the incident didn’t happen.

The Kwangju Uprising lasted for 10 days from May 18 to May 28, not long after Chun Doo Hwan sized power. It occurred at a time when South Korea was racked by pro-democracy demonstrations. The Kwangju area had a reputation of being the center of opposition politics and the Chun government reasoned that if they could put down demonstrations in Kwangju it would send of message to anyone else with ideas of opposing the government.

The United States has been accused of playing a role in the Kwangju incident, giving tacit approval to carry out of the violence or least not do anything to stop it. The U.S. State Department has insisted that U.S. military personnel was not anywhere near Kwangju at the time of the incident and they had no authority to interfere with domestic affairs.

Chun's hard-line policy led to the confrontation in Kwangju. As noted in a report issued by the Martial Law Command, the students and "hot-blooded young soldiers" confronted each other, angry citizens joined in, driven by alleged rumors that the "soldiers of Kyongsang Province origin came to exterminate the seeds of the Cholla people." The Kwangju massacre was to became an important landmark in the struggle for South Korean democracy. It heightened provincial hostility and marked the beginning of the rise of anti-American sentiment in South Korea. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]


Chun Regime Firms Up Its Power After the Kwangju Incident

Having suppressed the Kwangju uprising with brute force, General Chun Doo Hwan further tightened his grip on the government. He and three of his close associates served as the core of the junta committee, known as the Special Committee for National Security Measures. The three were Lieutenant General Ch'a Kyu-hon (deputy chief of staff of the army), Major General Roh Tae Woo (commander of the Capital Garrison Command), and Major General Chong Ho-yong (commander of the Special Forces). The junta vested in itself the authority to pass laws and to make all decisions affecting the state until a new National Assembly came into being. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

On August 5, 1980, Chun promoted himself from lieutenant general to full general in preparation for retiring from the army on August 22. On August 27 he was elected president by the National Conference for Unification, receiving 2,524 of the 2,525 votes cast. The single dissenting vote was invalidated for an unknown reason.

Chun presented his objective at his September 1, 1980, inauguration: to create a new society where all past corrupt practices would be replaced by mutual trust and justice. In order to accomplish this goal, he planned to remove the old politicians from the scene; only those certified as "clean" would be permitted to participate in building the new order.

In the economic field, Chun intended to do away with excessive protection of industries and to encourage creativity. An increase in employment opportunities would be facilitated, and cooperation and coprosperity between labor and management would be brought about. Farmers' income would be increased by continuing the Saemaul Movement.

1980 Constitution

One of Chun's inaugural promises was the promulgation of a new constitution and the holding of a national referendum to approve it. On September 29, 1980, the government announced the draft of a constitution that in many ways was the most democratic South Korea had ever had — except for the supplementary provisions and the procedure for presidential election. The guarantee of peoples' democratic rights was absolute, including the right to privacy in communications, the prohibition of torture, and the inadmissability in court trials of confessions obtained by force. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The president, who was to be elected by an electoral college and to serve a single seven-year term, was given strong powers, including the right to dissolve the National Assembly, which in turn could bring down cabinets but not the president. In the event that the constitution was amended to extend the president's term of office, such changes were not to be applied to the incumbent. The document received the overwhelming approval of the voters — 91.6 percent — at the national referendum held on October 22, 1980.

The constitution, however, was a "promissory note." Until the new National Assembly was elected and inaugurated, the Legislative Council for National Security, to be appointed by Chun, would enact all laws. A supplementary provision in the constitution also called for the dissolution of all existing political parties. In effect, by offering to bring in a democratic government by June 1981, Chun had obtained a mandate to change the political landscape in whatever form he chose. The new constitution placed South Korea under a constitutional dictatorship from October 1980 to June 1981.

Purges and Re-Education in the Chun Doo Hwan Era

Chun zealously pushed his campaign to weed out corruption. The clean-up campaign began in May 1980 when Kim Jong Pil and others were forced to give up their wealth and retire from politics. In June some 300 senior KCIA agents were dismissed. In July 1980, more than 230 senior officials, including former cabinet officers, were dismissed on corruption charges. The ax also fell on 4,760 low-level officials in the government, state-owned firms, and banks, with the proviso that the former officials not be rehired by such firms within two years. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The Martial Law Command arrested 17 prominent politicians of both the government and opposition parties for investigation and removed some 400 bank officials, including 4 bank presidents and 21 vice presidents. The government also announced the dismissal of 1,819 officials of public enterprises and affiliated agencies, including 39 (some 25 percent) of the presidents and vice presidents of such enterprises and banks and 128 board directors (more than 22 percent).

The "clean-up campaign" also extended to the mass media. On July 31, 1980, the 172 periodicals that allegedly caused "social decay and juvenile delinquency" were summarily abolished, among them some of the finest intellectual magazines of liberal inclination and prestigious journals for general audiences. This action resulted in the dismissal of hundreds of journalists and staff. The daily newspapers not affected by the purge also were directed to weed out "corrupting" — that is, liberal writers.

In the wake of Chun's purge, the government also launched a massive reeducation program for the nation's elites. High government officials, judges, prosecutors, business executives, college professors, and their spouses — 32,000 persons in all — were brought together for an intensive three-day training program at Saemaul's New Community Training Centers in Suwon and elsewhere. The training regimen included morning exercises, environmental cleanup, lectures on the New Community Movement, and discussion sessions on "the proper way of life."

This training program, initiated under Park's regime, eventually was to be extended to the general public. In August 1980, the government launched another massive propaganda campaign, organizing "Bright Society Rallies" in major cities where tens of thousands of citizens were mobilized to hear speeches. In addition, "Cleansing Committees" were established at all levels of government down to the local ward (ri and dong) levels.

Elections Under Chun Doo Hwan

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “Twelve new parties (reduced to eight) were formed to enter the 1981 elections, in which Chun Doo Hwan was elected to a seven-year presidential term by a new electoral college and his Democratic Justice Party (DJP) secured a majority in the reconstituted National Assembly. Despite harsh controls, opposition to Chun continued. In 1982, 1,200 political prisoners were released, and in early 1983, the ban on political activity was lifted for 250 of the banned politicians. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“In 1984, under increasing pressure for political reforms prior to the 1985 parliamentary elections, the government lifted its ban on all but 15 of the 567 politicians banned in 1980. In 1985, the ban was lifted on 14 of the remaining 15. Kim Dae Jung was allowed to return from exile in the United States in 1984 but was rearrested. He remained banned from all political activity because of his conviction for sedition in 1980.

“Opposition groups quickly formed the New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP) to challenge the DJP in the 1985 election; the new party became a strong minority voice in the National Assembly. The issue of constitutional reforms, particularly changes in the way in which presidents are elected and the way in which "bonus" seats in the legislature are distributed, became prominent, especially after Chun reaffirmed a commitment to step down in February 1988 and, in April 1986, dropped his long-standing opposition to any constitutional changes prior to that date.”

Military Under Chun Doo Hwan

Park's assassination in 1979 did not obscure his regime's contributions to improving the armed forces during the eighteen years he was in power. He reorganized the Ministry of National Defense and each of the armed services to enhance the government's capability to manage any military contingency, including an all-out attack by North Korea across the DMZ, smallscale infiltrations along South Korea's extensive 8,640-kilometer coastline, and various types of low-intensity conflict, such as commando raids that targeted industrial, power, and communications facilities, or attempts by terrorists to assassinate key government officials. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

President Chun Doo Hwan perpetuated the military's dominance over politics from December 1979 until Roh's inauguration in February 1988 and protected Park's legacy of simultaneously improving the country's economic and military capabilities. Chun continued Park's policy of devoting one-third of all government spending to the military, outstripping estimated North Korean military expenditures during most of the 1980s. Chun also continued Park's policy of promoting defense-related research and development and commercial agreements with the United States, Japan, and Western Europe — a policy that provided Seoul with access to more advanced defense technologies. Particular emphasis was placed on expanding the air force and establishing a modern air defense network.*

Korean Air, then South Korea's only civil airline, began coproduction of Northrop F5-E/F fighter aircraft in 1982. At the end of Chun's term in office, Seoul was considering coproducing either the General Dynamics F-16 or the McDonnell Douglas FA-18. During Chun's administration, South Korean shipbuilders increased production of various types of frigates, missile-equipped fast attack craft, and other, smaller naval vessels. Civilian industries also became more involved in coproduction of defense ordnance, including armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, tanks, and communications equipment.*

Terrorist Acts and Tragedies in the 1980s

On September 1, 1983, 269 people died when a Korean Air 007 was shot down by a Soviet fighter near Sakhalin Island. The Boeing 747 had strayed off course into Soviet air space on a flight from Alaska to Seoul. The Soviet pilot fired warning shots and then fired on the airliner with at least one air-to-air missile after receiving orders from General Anatolu Kornukov, who insisted as late as 1996 that the plane was on a spy mission.

The Russian pilot who shot down the plane said later he had no regrets about what he did and said he wished he shot the plane earlier so it could have crashed on Soviet territory to prove it was one a spy mission. "I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing," he told the New York Times. "It is easy to turn a civilian plane into one for military use." No bodies and hardly any debris was recovered from the crash.

On October 9, 1983, less than six weeks after the Korean Air tragedy, a bomb planted by North Korean spies exploded during an official visit by South Korean president Chun Doo Hwon to Rangoon, Burma. Chun survived, but 21 other people were killed including 17 in his entourage, which included four cabinet members, two top Presidential advisors, an ambassador and 10 other top South Korean officials. The Burmese captured two North Korean army agents who were later found guilty of murder. Pyongyang denied involvement, saying the whole thing was staged to discredit the North. Unpersuaded, South Korea broke off diplomatic relations with North Korea.

In 1987, two North Koreans posing as Japanese tourists bombed a civilian Korean airliner. Korean Air flight 858, traveling from Baghdad to Abu Dhabi to Seoul, blew up in midair over the Andaman Sea near Burma. All 115 people were killed. The terrorist act was believe to have been in retaliation for North Korea being barred from the 1988 Olympics. A female North Korean agent, Kim Hyun Hee, and her male companion slipped a bomb planted in a radio on the plane. The two agents got on the plane in Baghdad and got off in Abu Dhabi. They boarded a another plane for Bahrain, where they caught by security personnel after the bomb exploded.

After being caught the two North Korean tried to commit suicide by taking poison pills (with highly lethal cyanide gas) hidden in a pack of cigarettes. Kim survived but her companion didn’t. Kim later tried to bite off her tongue so she couldn't talk. Later, she said that her handlers told her that the attack was ordered by Kim Jong Il. Kim was convicted in the bombing of a South Korean airliner and sentenced to death. While in prison she became a born-again Christian and was pardoned after denouncing North Korea and Communism. She was spared because her act was considered political and she had been brainwashed.

Economy Under Chun Doo Hwan

The new regime inherited an economy suffering from all the side effects of Park's export-oriented development program and policy of expanding heavy and chemical industries. The international economic environment of the early 1980s was extremely unfavorable, a situation that further restricted South Korea's exports. It was necessary, therefore, for the Chun regime to concentrate on stabilization and it devoted its first two years to controlling inflation while attempting to bring about economic recovery. Investment was redirected from the capitalintensive heavy and chemical industries towards labor-intensive light industries that produced consumer goods. Import restrictions were lifted. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The economy began to improve in 1983 because of stringent anti-inflationary measures and the upturn in the world economy. While South Korea had suffered a negative growth rate in 1980, it attained an 8.1 percent growth rate in 1983. Exports began increasing in mid-1983 and the economy began to gain strength. A good harvest in 1983 also helped. South Korea attained its 1983 export target of US$23.5 billion, a 7.6 percent increase from 1982. *

In December 1983, Seoul unveiled its revised Fifth Five-Year Economic and Social Development Plan. The plan called for steady growth for the next three years, low inflation, and sharply reduced foreign borrowing. Exports were to rise by 15 percent a year, inflation was projected to be held at 1.8 percent, and per capita GNP was to rise to US$2,325 by 1986. The annual growth rate was planned to average 7.5 percent though the actual performance was higher. The real GNP growth rate was 7 percent in 1985, but for the next three years 12.9 percent, 12.8 percent, and 12.2 percent, respectively. *

Foreign Policy Under Chun Doo Hwan

South Korea and North Korea met several times during the 1980s to discuss reunification, and in 1990 there were three meetings between the prime ministers of North and South Korea. These talks have yielded some results, such as the exchange of family visits organized in 1989. The problems blocking complete reunification, however, continue to be substantial. Two incidents of terrorism against South Korea were widely attributed to North Korea: a 1983 bombing that killed several members of the South Korean government, and the 1987 destruction of a South Korean airliner over the Thailand-Myanmar border. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

The Chun government also brought about a significant change in South Korea's relations with Japan. In 1981 Chun utilized the United States' support and its strategy of allocating greater responsibility to Japan in the East Asian region to persuade Tokyo to grant Seoul a large public loan. The negotiations lasted until early 1983 and aroused many conflicting emotions in both countries. However, Chun was able to obtain a US$4 billion low-interest loan that significantly contributed to boosting South Korea's credit rating and to accelerating its economic recovery; Seoul's foreign debt had reached US$41 billion at the end of 1983 and was badly in need of an improved credit rating. Japanese prime minister Nakasone Yasuhiro capped the negotiation process by paying a state visit to Seoul in January 1983. While other Japanese prime ministers had visited Seoul for inaugurations or funerals, this was the first state visit to South Korea by a Japanese leader since the country was liberated from Japan in 1945. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Chun continued Park's policy of improving relations with China and the Soviet Union and attached considerable importance to these two countries, long the allies of North Korea. Beijing and Moscow were thought to have much influence in charting the future of the Korean Peninsula and were thus a part of Nordpolitik.

Seoul's official contact with Beijing was facilitated by the landing of a hijacked Chinese civilian airliner in May 1983. China sent a delegation of thirty-three officials to Seoul to negotiate the return of the airliner, marking the beginning of frequent exchanges of personnel. For example, in March 1984, a South Korean tennis team visited Kunming for a Davis Cup match with a Chinese team. In April 1984, a thirty-four-member Chinese basketball team arrived in Seoul to participate in the Eighth Asian Junior Basketball Championships. Some Chinese officials reportedly paid quiet visits to South Korea to inspect its industries, and South Korean officials visited China to attend various international conferences. Since China and South Korea began indirect trade in 1975, the volume has steadily increased.

The Soviet Union's unofficial relationship with South Korea began in 1973, when it permitted South Koreans to attend an international conference held in the Soviet Union. In October 1982, a Soviet official attended an international conference in South Korea on the preservation of cultural relics. The uproar following the Korean Air (KAL) 007 incident in September 1983, when the Soviet air force shot down the KAL passenger airplane, brought about a hiatus in contacts, but the unofficial relationship resumed in 1988.

Relations with the United States Under Chun Doo Hwan

One of the most salient elements of the Chun regime was its close ties with the Reagan administration. This was in sharp contrast to the strained Washington-Seoul relationship under presidents Carter and Park, when the United States government had criticized Park's dictatorial policies and attempted to implement Carter's campaign pledge to withdraw United States ground combat troops from South Korea. The relationship also had been strained because of the 1977 Koreagate scandal. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Reagan provided unmitigated support to Chun and to South Korea's security. Chun was Reagan's first official guest in the White House. Reagan reaffirmed his support of Chun by visiting Seoul in November 1983. While Reagan's support considerably buttressed Chun's stature in domestic politics and the international arena, it also fueled the subculture of anti-Americanism. The opposition forces in South Korea, suffering from the government's stringent suppression, denounced United States' support for the Chun regime as a callous disregard for human rights and questioned the United States' motives in Korea. *

The past image of the United States as a staunch supporter of democracy in South Korea was replaced with that of defender of its own interests, a policy impervious to injustices committed in South Korea. This view was accentuated by the fact that Chun's White House visit occurred only several months after the Martial Law Command had brutally suppressed the student uprising in Kwangju. (It was later revealed by Richard V. Allen, National Security Advisor to President Reagan, that Chun's visit was part of Washington's diplomatic effort to spare the life of Kim Dae Jung who had been sentenced to death.) This atmosphere led some of South Korea's radical elements to take extreme measures, such as arson committed at the United States Information Service building in Pusan in March 1982 and the occupation of the United States Information Service Library in Seoul in May 1985. Students who demonstrated against the Chun government invariably carried anti-American slogans. *

Problems Faced by the Chun Regime

Even though Chun Doo Hwan's government had attained considerable results in economy and diplomacy, his government failed to win public trust or support. In spite of Chun's lofty pronouncements, the public basically regarded Chun as a usurper of power who had deprived South Korea of its opportunity to restore democracy. Chun lacked political credentials; his access to power derived from his position as the head of the Defense Security Command — the army's nerve center of political intelligence — and his ability to bring together his generals in the front lines. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Chun and his military followers failed to overcome the stigma of the Kwangju incident, and the new "just society" that he promised did not materialize. In fact, between 1982 and 1983, at least two of the major financial scandals in South Korea involved Chun's in-laws. The Chun government's slogans became hollow. While Park had gained respect and popularity through the record-breaking pace of economic development, Chun could not repeat such a feat. In the 1985 National Assembly elections, opposition parties together won more votes than the government party, clearly indicating that the public wanted a change. Moreover, increasing numbers of people became more sympathetic to the students, who presented increasingly radical demands.

One of the most serious problems the government faced was that the argument for restricting democracy became less and less credible. The people had long been tolerant of various restrictions imposed by succeeding governments because of the perceived threat from the north, but the consensus eroded as the international environment moderated. More and more people became cynical about repeated government pronouncements, viewing them as self-serving propaganda by those in power. This tendency was particularly pronounced among the post-Korean War generation that constituted a majority of the South Korean population.

Demise of the Chun Regime

The unpopular Chun regime and its constitutional framework was brought down in 1987 largely by the student agitation that beset the regime. Student activists set the tone and agenda of the society as a whole because the government and the government-controlled press had lost their credibility. The opposition parties worked with the students, although they disagreed on the ultimate aim — the politicians wanted reform, while the students demanded revolution. The opposition politicians wanted constitutional reform to replace the existing system of electing the president through the handpicked electoral college with direct popular election. The students attacked not only the military leaders in power, but also the entire socio-political and economic establishment. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

A small number of confirmed radicals led the student movement. They argued that the basic cause for the political and social malaise in South Korea was "American imperialism," which they believed had dominated South Korea ever since it was liberated from Japan in 1945. In their view, "American imperialism" buttressed the military dictatorship and the exploitative capitalist system; the struggle against the military dictatorship and American imperialism was inseparable. This position was the same argument that North Korea had been advancing since 1946, but a more important source of intellectual persuasion came from the revisionist school of historiography that swept United States academia during the 1970s.

The revisionist argument was very similar to that of Lenin on imperialism. The Cold War was seen as the inevitable outcome of the United States capitalist system's need for continuous economic expansion abroad. United States participation in the Korean War and the subsequent stationing of United States forces in South Korea satisfied such a need, according to this perspective. For the revisionists, it was irrelevant that the United States had decided to abandon Korea in September-October 1947, or that the United States had withdrawn its occupation forces from South Korea in 1949. The communist countries, whether the Soviet Union or North Korea, were seen as passive entities reacting against the aggressive actions of "American imperialists" rather than pursuing their own goals. The fact that the United States had interjected itself into the Korean War in 1950, and that it continued to station its troops in South Korea after the war, was evidence enough.

The revisionist arguments found a fertile soil among the university students. The inquisitive students had long viewed the one-sided anticommunist propaganda emanating from official and established sources as stifling and as leaving too many questions unanswered. The new arguments sounded logical and convincing, particularly when some of the revisionists took liberty with historical evidence. Increasing numbers of students took to the streets to denounce the military dictatorship and American imperialism.

Initially, the public was apathetic to the confrontation between the student demonstrators and government, but the daily fracas on the streets and the never-ending smell of tear gas aroused their ire. The news about the torture and death of a student, Pak Chong-ch'ol, by the police touched the sore nerves of the people. President Chun attempted to squash the opposition by issuing a declaration on April 13, 1987, to suspend the "wasteful debate" about constitutional reform until a new government was installed at the end of his seven-year term. The declaration was, instead, his regime's swan song. Chun wanted to have his successor "elected" by his handpicked supporters; the public greeted the declaration with universal outrage. Even the Reagan administration, which had been taciturn about South Korea's internal politics, urged the Chun government not to ignore the outrage. Finally, on June 29, 1987, Roh Tae Woo, the government party's choice as Chun's successor, made a dramatic announcement in favor of a new democratic constitution that embodied all the opposition's demands.

Trial of Chun Doo Hwan

In 1988 Chun bowed to public pressure and left office, paving the way for South Korea's first democratic election. In doing so, he became the first South Korean president to give up office in a peaceful manner. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “In the fall of 1988, the National Assembly audited the government and held public hearings on former President Chun's abuses of power. In November, Chun apologized to the nation in a televised address, gave his personal wealth to the nation, and retired into a Buddhist temple. Following the revision of the constitution in 1987, South Koreans enjoyed greater freedoms of expression and assembly and freedom of the press, and in 1988, several hundred political dissidents were released from prison. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

In 1995, Chun Doo Hwan was charged with murder, mutiny, treason and corruption for masterminding the military coup in 1979 and giving the orders that triggered the Kwangju Incident. After being charged Chun went on a 28-day hunger strike to protest effort to bring him to trial. The hunger strike ended when he collapsed unconscious and was taken to the hospital. The so-called "Trial of the Century" was covered extensively on television and scalpers sold courtroom seats for the opening session for US$500 a piece.

In September 1996, Chun was found guilty of all the charges except murder and given the death penalty and fined US$276 million. Chun's friend and successor, former president Roh Tae-woo was sentenced to 22½ years in prison and fined around US$350 million on roughly the same charges. Chun Doo Hwan reportedly amassed US$900 million during his eight years in office.

In a judgment confirmed by South Korea's Supreme Court in 1997, Chun was convicted of insurrection and corruption and ordered to pay 220 billion won in restitution to the South Korean state In the trial, Chun admitted receiving a massive slush fund when he took power, but he said he was simply following the practice established by his military predecessors. "When judged by today's yardstick, it may be wrong, but in those days, it was customary to receive donations," he said during his closing arguments. Details about the slush fund are unclear. Chun's former chief bodyguard testified that Chun gave Roh Tae Woo, his friend from the military and successor as president, US$230 million in cash to help finance his 1987 presidential campaign. [Source: Sam Kim, Associated Press, June 24, 2013]

On the day of the sentencing Chun and Roh entered the courtroom together holding hands. When the death sentence was read Chun shuddered briefly and then closed his eyes for a long moment while family members of victims of the Kwangju incident cheered outside the courthouse. Twenty-one other generals, military men and government officials in Chun Doo-hwan's government were given sentences from 4 to 10 years in prison for playing a major role in the mutiny and treason. The Chun Doo-hwan death sentence was seen by some as a stiff warning to dictators in China, Indonesia and Burma about the fate that might await them if they lost their grip on power.

No one ever really thought Chun would be executed. Later his sentence was commuted to life in prison and Roh's was reduced to 17 years. Chun and Roh spent about two year in prison (about 8 months before the September 1996 judgement and 15 months after the decision) in remodeled cells outfitted with Western toilets and improved heating system. Both men were released from prison in December, 1997 after receiving a presidential pardon from Kim Young Sam, who was elected in 1992 with Chun and Roh's support and most likely some of their slush fund money.

Chun Doo Hwan in Retirement

In the fall of 1988, the National Assembly audited the government and held public hearings on Chun's abuses of power. Chun apologized on national television in November 1989 for the "misdeeds" he committed while in office and said he was "pained and ashamed" about his past. He donated the "remaining" US$200 million from his political slush find and US$35 million in personal assets to the South Korean government and then went into self-imposed, two-year exile with his wife at the remote Buddhist temple on Paektam-sa in Mt. Sorak.

In the 2010, Chun was in his 80s and living in a posh suburb of Seoul. Steven Borowiec wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In one of the stately homes in this leafy part of town, a disgraced former president is living out his twilight years. Chun Doo-hwan was the face of the repressive government that led this country throughout much of the 1980s; these days he mostly stays behind the walls of his police-protected compound. [Source: Steven Borowiec, Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2015]

“It's no wonder that Chun, 84, came to this neighborhood, called Yeonhui, seeking seclusion. It has plenty of stand-alone houses in a country where most people live in apartments. With its narrow streets and abundant pine trees, it is also one of the calmer corners of the capital. On a recent afternoon, the streets around the compound had few cars or pedestrians, a rarity in this noisy, densely packed city of more than 10 million.

“Nevertheless, Chun still finds himself in the headlines as officials in South Korea and the U.S. work to get back the millions of dollars he procured in kickbacks from major companies while he ruled from 1979 to 1988. This month, U.S. prosecutors returned to South Korea US$1.1 million in seized assets connected to Chun. That amount is a drop in an ocean of ill-gotten spoils that Chun had amassed during his presidency.

“Chun insists that his opulent digs don't reflect his financial situation. A few years ago, with most of the fine still unpaid, he pleaded poverty, saying that he had less than US$300 to his name. Given his lifestyle and the size of the fortune he amassed, that claim provoked ridicule. Political pop artist Lee Ha made a mocking mug shot of Chun, depicting him in prison garb holding a check for 290,000 Korean won, all the money he claimed to possess.

“Chun is sometimes spotted at expensive golf courses, and in 2012, he was photographed at one of Seoul's ritziest hotels during his granddaughter's wedding. Some South Koreans are less than thrilled that a former president who sent in the troops to attack his people now lives under police protection, with taxpayers footing the bill. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has spoken about dispensing with Chun's police guard, but three officers continue to stand sentinel outside the gated compound, not in police uniform, but dressed head to toe in black, with no identifying insignia. They shoo away anyone who lingers too long in front of Chun's place. When asked why no one is allowed to stand around or take photos, their only response is, "It's policy."

“At a nearby store, one middle-aged woman shopping for flowers said of Chun, "He's just another neighbor." His name still seems to conjure anxiety in neighborhood residents old enough to have lived through his iron-fisted rule, when criticism could have landed one in jail. Another middle-aged woman, sweeping up leaves outside the gates of her home, giggled sheepishly when his name was mentioned. "He's very old now," she said.”

Trying to Seize Chun Doo Hwan’s Stashed Away Millions

In 1996, a South Korean court found Chun Doo Hwan guilty of having stashed away huge sums in slush funds and ordered him to pay back US$229 million in criminal restitution. A task force dedicated to collecting the money was due to disband in 2013, but that year, the South Korean parliament extended its mandate until 2020. In the summer of 2013, prosecutors raided Chun's home, seizing cash, artwork and other valuables. They also searched properties owned by Chun's son and daughter, on suspicion that he has concealed some of his assets in their names. In November 2015, U.S. prosecutors included proceeds from a Newport Beach house Chun's son had sold.) [Source: Steven Borowiec, Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2015]

In 2013 Sam Kim of Associated Press wrote: Chun Doo-hwan owes the country 167.5 billion won (US$143.5 million) that he was found to have amassed through corruption during his 1980s rule, but he insists he's broke. Prosecutors have less than four months left to prove him wrong. He also was ordered to pay back the 220.5 billion won (US$189 million) "slush fund" that officials said he had amassed from dozens of businessmen in return for government contracts and other favors. He has since returned 53 billion won (US$45 million) to the government. The statute of limitations is extended three years every time an asset is seized. That has happened several times: A Mercedes-Benz sedan belonging to Chun was seized in 2000, and in 2010 he voluntarily paid 3 million won (US$2,600) in what was seen by many as an effort to prevent authorities from confiscating larger assets. [Source: Sam Kim, Associated Press, June 24, 2013]

In 2003, Chun said his money was gone. He was ridiculed when he reportedly said at a court hearing that year that he had less than US$300 and he was living off money from his sons and supporters, but wouldn't ask his sons to help pay his debt because "they have to make a living, too." Chun's wife told reporters in 2012 that the ex-president had paid all he could. That same year, the Kyunghyang Shinmun daily reported that he played golf and had a whiskey party at an island resort off the west coast.

“Opposition lawmaker Jun Byung-hun alleges that Chun's three sons received assets from their father now worth a total of more than 300 billion won (US$260 million). The number couldn't be verified independently, and his office wouldn't say where it came from. The former leader's eldest son, Chun Jae-kook, runs a publishing company that posted revenue of 44 billion won (US$38 million) last year, according to its audit report. Sigongsa Inc., founded in 1989, has stakes in 13 companies. Half its shares are owned by Chun Jae-kook and another 20 percent are owned by other relatives, according to the report. Jun said another son, Chun Jae-man, operates a California winery worth 100 billion won (US$86 million) with his father-in-law, businessman Hi Sang Lee. The website for Rutherford, California-based Dana Estates describes the two as proprietors, and says Lee purchased the winery in 2005.

“The South Korean partner of the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists said that Chun Jae-kook set up a fake company in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands in 2004, fueling local media speculation that he may have used the company's bank account as a conduit to stash his father's money. In a statement released through his company, the son said the account had nothing to do with his father and that he would cooperate with any government investigations.

“Ahn Chang-nam, a tax professor at Kangnam University in South Korea, said proving a connection between Chun's slush funds and his family's money is a daunting task because evidence could have been manipulated or destroyed while Chun was in power. Kim Sung-joo, a political science professor at Seoul's Sungkyunkwan University, expressed skepticism that all Chun's money would be collected, saying senior officials who once served Chun still hold sway today and will be reluctant to press the matter because of the special benefits they received. "Without closing this chapter on Chun and his slush money, South Korea can't establish a sense of social justice that future generations can be proud of," Kim said.

Chun Doo Hwan U.S. Assets Seized and Art Sold

In September 2014, U.S. authorities said that they had seized a half-million dollars' worth of assets linked to corruption by Chun. AFP reported: “The Justice Department said it has taken control of a US$500,000 (SUS$626,000) investment by Chun's daughter-in-law in a Pennsylvania company — adding to US$726,000 seized in February from a California real estate sale by Chun's son. "President Chun amassed more than US$200 million in bribes while in office, and he and his relatives systematically laundered these funds through a complex web of transactions in the United States and Korea," said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell. Caldwell said that US justice authorities "will use every available means to deny corrupt foreign officials and their relatives safe haven for their assets in the United States". [Source: AFP, September 4, 2014

Art works confiscated from the Chun family were auctioned between December 2013 and May 2014 to pay of his multi-million-dollar fines. Two auction houses said they had raised 7.2 billion won (US$6.7 million) from the sale of 600 art works. AFP reported: “The figure raised still falls far short of the 167.2 billion won Chun has been ordered to pay. Lee Sang-Gyu, the head of K-Auction, said the last batch of 97 items sold Wednesday fetched 1.36 billion won, more than twice their estimate. Among the works were three pieces of calligraphy written by Chun himself which went for between one and five million won each. [Source: AFP, May 13, 2014]

Succumbing to pressure from prosecutors, Chun's family in September agreed to put their assets — including a large house in Seoul where Chun and his wife live — up for sale. He only returned a small portion of the sum he owes, arguing that he did not possess the necessary cash or assets. Chun's son and his brother-in-law were both given suspended jail sentences in August 2014 after being convicted of tax evasion.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.