Roh died at Seoul National University Hospital while being treated for an illness, according to the hospital. It didn’t go on to say anything else. After their mentor, dictator Park Chung-hee, was assassinated earlier in 1979, Roh was a key participant in the 1979 military coup that installed his army friend and coup leader Chun Doo-hwan as president.
Roh led his army division into Seoul, where he joined other military leaders in seizing the capital. The 1980 coup and subsequent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the southern city of Gwangju by the Chun-controlled military are two of the darkest chapters in South Korea’s turbulent modern history.
About 200 people were killed in the military-led crackdowns in Gwangju, according to government records.
Roh was Chun’s hand-picked successor, and his election to the presidency would have been a cakewalk. However, months of massive pro-democracy protests in 1987 forced Roh and Chun to accept a direct presidential election, which marked the beginning of South Korea’s democratic transition.
Despite his military background, Roh maintained a moderate and pleasant demeanour throughout the campaign, referring to himself as a “average person.”
His victory in the tumultuous December 1987 election was largely due to a split in opposition votes between Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, both of whom went on to become presidents.
During his five-year term, Roh used his “Northward Diplomacy” to aggressively pursue ties with communist countries as communism crumbled in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Because of its rivalry with North Korea, South Korea was deeply anti-communist at the time, but under Roh, it established diplomatic relations with a communist country for the first time — Hungary — in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and communism crumbled across Eastern Europe.
In 1990, Roh established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and in 1992, with China. Under Roh, relations with North Korea improved, with the two countries holding their first-ever prime ministers’ talks in 1990 and both joining the UN at the same time in 1991.
In recent years, the rivals’ ties have suffered significant setbacks and retreats, with Pyongyang pursuing a nuclear weapons programme that it sees as a means of survival.
Many people thought Roh lacked charismatic and aggressive leadership when it came to domestic issues. “Mul (Water) Tae-woo,” his nickname, alluded to his administration’s lack of colour and taste. In contrast to his authoritarian predecessors, Park and Chun, he also brought more openness by allowing more political mockery. Under the guise of preventing civil unrest and North Korean threats, the governments led by Park and Chun frequently used security laws to suppress political opponents and restrict speech.
Roh focused on increasing domestic consumption in his later years as president to compensate for exports that were slowed by global economic downturns, only to be dealt the lowest full-year growth rate of his presidency.
Roh was arrested, convicted of mutiny, treason, and corruption, and sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison after his successor, Kim Young-sam, investigated the coup and military-led crackdown. Chun was given the death penalty.
Chun’s sentence was reduced to life in prison, while Roh’s was reduced to 17 years. Despite this, both were ordered to repay hundreds of millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains.
Both Roh and Chun were released in late 1997 after serving about two years in prison, thanks to a special pardon requested by then-President-elect Kim Dae-jung, who sought national reconciliation amid the Asian financial crisis.
Kim Dae-jung was a former dissident who was sentenced to death by the military junta led by Chun and Roh on fabricated charges of masterminding the 1980 civil uprising.
Following his release from prison, Roh stayed mostly out of the spotlight, avoiding political activities and speeches.