Roh Tae-woo, Leader During South Korea’s Transition to Democracy, Dies

SEOUL—Roh Tae-woo, South Korea’s first democratically elected president who played a controversial role in the country’s transition from a military dictatorship, died Tuesday. He was 88 years old.

A decorated war veteran, he had been in poor health since a surgery for prostate cancer in 2002 and was repeatedly hospitalized. He died in an intensive care unit at Seoul National University Hospital, according to the hospital.

He was born in 1932, the son of a local government official in Dalseong county, in the southeastern city of Daegu. He attended the Korean Military Academy and began his enlisted career during the 1950 to 1953 Korean War.

When dictator

Park Chung-hee

was assassinated in 1979, Mr. Roh joined a coup that made his former classmate from the military academy, Chun Doo-hwan, president. Under Mr. Chun, Mr. Roh served as the sports and interior minister and the chief of the then-ruling Democratic Justice Party.

Mr. Chun’s military suppressed an armed rebellion of people fighting for democracy in the southern city of Gwangju in 1980, deploying tanks and paratroopers. About 200 people were killed.

Mr. Chun’s decision to name Mr. Roh as his successor set off large pro-democracy rallies in Seoul ahead of elections in 1987, with citizens demanding an end to military rule. At the time, South Korea chose its president by an electoral college filled with government delegates.

Mr. Roh accepted a direct presidential poll, which was the start of South Korea’s transition to democracy. He won the election through a direct vote and served as president from 1988 to 1993.

As president, Mr. Roh said “an era of ordinary people” had arrived in South Korea. He has been credited with building ties with socialist countries and promoting inter-Korean relations. He also oversaw South Korea’s successful bid for the 1988 Olympics.

During his five-year term, Mr. Roh established formal diplomatic ties with Russia and China. Under Mr. Roh, the two Koreas held talks between their prime ministers for the first time in 1990 and both were admitted to the United Nations the next year. They also signed an agreement to keep the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, a pledge North Korea later broke.

“Roh took part in the military regime and had to be blamed for the role he played in suppressing democratic protests, but in terms of diplomatic policy and inter-Korean relations, he was the first president to make progress,” said Lee Jung-chul, professor of political science at Seoul National University.

When his successor investigated the coup in 1996, Mr. Roh was sentenced to 22½ years in prison for his role in the 1979 event and the 1980 Gwangju massacre. He was convicted of mutiny, treason and corruption. The Supreme Court reduced his sentence to 17 years, but Mr. Roh, along with Mr. Chun, was ordered to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars they collected illegally.

After about two years in prison, Mr. Roh was pardoned, along with Mr. Chun. Mr. Roh’s son has repeatedly apologized for the violent suppression of the uprising in 1980 and paid respects to the victims on behalf of his father.

Write to Dasl Yoon at dasl.yoon@wsj.com

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