SEOUL – Dozens of relatives and dignitaries gathered in the South Korean capital on Saturday to pay their last respects to former President Roh Tae-woo, a key participant in the 1979 military coup that went on to win a historic democratic election before his political career ended in jail for corruption and treason.
Pandemic restrictions have limited the size of funeral services for Roh, who died Tuesday at the age of 88 of complications from various illnesses. Doctors said his condition had worsened in recent years due to a degenerative disease.
President Moon Jae-in’s decision to hold a state funeral for Roh has been controversial due to its links to the coup and a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the southern town of Gwangju in 1980 that killed about 200 people and injured hundreds more.
Gwangju and several other cities and provincial governments have refused to lower flags or erect memorial altars for Roh in accordance with state funeral procedures.
Moon, who did not visit the Roh memorial altar at a Seoul hospital before leaving for Rome on Thursday for meetings with Pope Francis and Group of 20 leaders, said through his office that Roh had made “significant contributions to national development despite many historical misdeeds.”
On the last day of a five-day funeral procession, honor guards wrapped Roh’s coffin with the national flag and placed it in the back of a limousine. The vehicle then exited the hospital and followed a black convertible topped with a huge portrait of Roh in a motorcade on its way to his home in north Seoul.
Family members quietly toured the house, led by a grandson who wore a smaller portrait of Roh. Next, they headed south to Seoul for a funeral service at a plaza in the Olympic Park, a venue built for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, held during Roh’s first year of presidency.
Funeral attendees were limited to 50 people, including relatives, government officials, religious leaders and foreign diplomats, due to concerns over COVID-19. Roh’s wife, Kim Ok-suk, and their two children, Roh Soh-young and Roh Jae-heon, sat quietly in chairs far apart, gazing solemnly at the ground.
Seoul’s No.2 Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said in a speech that Roh will be remembered for his many accomplishments as president, including successful hosting of the Olympics, expanding relations with countries Communists and the easing of tensions with North Korea.
Kim also regretted that Roh never apologized in person for the coup and military atrocities, although his children have expressed remorse as his health has deteriorated in recent years.
âIt is an indisputable truth that President Roh Tae-woo has a huge flaw that cannot be erased,â Kim said. “As we attend the funeral today, we realize that no one is immune from the (judgment) of history.”
Roh’s criminal convictions legally prevent him from being buried with other former national leaders and heroes at the country’s national cemetery. His cremated remains will be kept in a Buddhist temple in Paju, north of Seoul, until his grave is ready in the nearby Paju Reunification Park, which was built during his presidency in 1989 as a symbol of peace. between the two Koreas.
Gwangju Mayor Lee Yong-sup, a member of Moon’s Liberal Democratic Party, said the city could not honor Roh while he was a key member of the military junta of dictator Chun Doo-hwan who slaughtered his citizens.
âHe was the president of our country, and although it is our traditional feeling to mourn a deceased person, Gwangju cannot do it (for Roh),â Lee said Wednesday.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that Roh was leaving a “complicated legacy,” but credited him with solidifying South Korea’s democratic transition as president.
Roh took office in 1988 after becoming the country’s first directly elected leader in decades after successive military governments in Seoul.
He played a major role in the military coup of December 1979 that brought to power his longtime friend, Chun, in the military. Their takeover came months after their mentor, dictator Park Chung-hee, was assassinated by his spy chief after 18 years of rule.
Roh had been Chun’s hand-picked successor, but massive pro-democracy protests in 1987 forced them to accept a direct presidential election, which began South Korea’s transition to democracy.
Despite his military background, Roh has carved out a softer image for himself during the presidential campaign, calling himself an “average person.” He won a much contested vote in December 1987, largely thanks to a split in the liberal votes between opposition candidates Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, both of whom later became presidents.
During his five-year tenure, Roh actively pursued diplomacy with communist countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall, establishing relations with the Soviet Union and China in the early 1990s.
He also took steps to improve relations with North Korea, which led the Koreas to jointly issue a statement promising a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and join the UN at the same time in 1991.
His government was also credited with successfully hosting the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which was considered South Korea’s coming out celebration to the world after its rapid reconstruction after the destruction of the Korean War. from 1950-1953.
After his successor Kim Young-sam investigated the coup and crackdown in Gwangju, Roh was arrested, found guilty of mutiny, treason, and corruption, and was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison. . Chun was sentenced to death.
The Supreme Court later reduced those sentences to life imprisonment for Chun and 17 years for Roh. After spending approximately two years in prison, Roh and Chun were released in late 1997 under a special pardon requested by then-president-elect Kim Dae-jung, who sought national reconciliation.
Roh had been out of public view most of the time after his release from prison. Last April, her daughter, Roh So-young, wrote on Facebook that her father had been bedridden for 10 years without being able to speak or move his body.