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 who later won groundbreaking democratic elections before his political career ended. with imprisonment for corruption and treason.
Restrictions due to the pandemic have limited the scope of funeral services for Roh, who died Tuesday at the age of 88 due to complications of various diseases. Doctors say his condition has worsened in recent years due to a degenerative disorder.
President Moon Jae-in’s decision to hold a state funeral for Roh was controversial over his links to the 1980 coup and bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the southern city of Gwangju, which killed about 200 people and injured hundreds more.
Gwangju and several other provincial cities and governments have refused to replace flags in half or erect memorial altars for Roh in accordance with state funeral procedures.
Moon, who did not visit Roh’s memorial altar at a Seoul hospital before leaving for Rome on Thursday. meetings with Pope Francis and group 20 leaders, said through his office that Roh, despite many historical mistakes, is “an important contribution to national development”.
On the last day of the five-day funeral procession, honor guards wrapped Roh’s coffin with the state flag and placed it in the back of the limousine. The vehicle was then taken from the hospital and followed by a black convertible topped by a huge portrait of Roh in a procession heading towards his house in northern Seoul.
Family members quietly toured the house, which was run by a grandson carrying a smaller Roh portrait. They then headed to South Seoul for a funeral in a square in the Olympic Park, the venue built for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which took place in the first year of Roh’s presidency.
The number of funeral participants was limited to 50 people due to COVID-19 concerns, including relatives, government officials, religious leaders and foreign diplomats. Roh’s wife Kim Ok-suk and their two children, Roh Soh-young and Roh Jae-heon, sat quietly in distant chairs and solemnly stared at the floor.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, No. 2 in Seoul, said in a speech that Roh will be remembered for his many achievements as president, including successfully hosting the Olympics, expanding relations with communist countries and easing tensions with North Korea.
Kim also regretted that Roh never personally apologized for the coup and military atrocities, although his children expressed his regret, while his health had deteriorated in recent years.
“It is an indisputable truth that President Roh Tae-woo has a huge flaw that cannot be erased,” Kim said. “When we attend the funeral today, we are aware that no one is free [judgment] history. “
Roh’s criminal convictions legally prevent him from being buried with other former leaders and national heroes in the state cemetery. His cremated remains will be stored in a Buddhist temple in Pajo, north of Seoul, until his tomb is prepared in nearby Paju Reunification Park, built during his 1989 presidency 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 when he was a central member of dictator Chun Doo-hwan’s military junta that massacred its citizens.
“He was the president of our country, and although it is our traditional sentiment to mourn a dead person, Gwangju cannot do it“ for Roh, ”Lee said Wednesday.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that Roh was leaving a “complicated legacy,” but attributed credit to him for consolidating South Korea’s democratic transition as president.
Roh took office in 1988 after becoming the first directly elected head of state in decades after successive military governments in Seoul.
He was a major actor in the December 1979 military coup that brought his longtime military friend Chun to power. Their takeover came months after their mentor, dictator Park Chung-hee, was assassinated by his spy leader after 18 years of rule.
Roh was Chun’s hand-picked successor, however mass pro-democracy protests in 1987 forced them to hold direct presidential elections, triggering South Korea’s transition to democracy.
Despite his military background, Roh created a softer image during the presidential campaign and described himself as an “average man.” In December 1987, he won a highly controversial vote, largely due to the division of liberal votes between opposition candidates Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, who later became presidents.
During his five-year term, Roh actively pursued diplomacy with communist countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and established relations with the Soviet Union and China in the early 1990s.
It also took steps to improve relations with North Korea, prompting Korea to jointly issue a statement in 1991 vowing to keep the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free, while joining the United Nations.
His government was also credited with successfully hosting the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which were considered the South Korean party in the world after a rapid recovery from destruction in the 1950-53 Korean War.
After his successor Kim Young-sam investigated the coup and suppressed in Gwangju, Roh was arrested, convicted of rebellion, treason and corruption, and received 22 and a half years in prison. Chun was sentenced to death.
The Supreme Court later reduced those sentences to life in prison for Chun and 17 years for Roh. After about two years in prison, Roh and Chun were released at the end of 1997 on the basis of a special pardon demanded by then-elected President Kim Dae-jung, who was working for national reconciliation.
Roh was mostly out of the public eye after his release from prison. Last April, his daughter Roh So-young wrote on Facebook that her father had been strapped to the bed for the past 10 years without being able to speak or move his body.