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Roh Tae-woo, first president of South Korea's modern democracy, dies at 88

Roh Tae-woo, first president of South Korea's modern democracy, dies at 88
Then-presidential candidate Roh Tae-woo announces a campaign plan in Seoul, South Korea, on June 29, 1987. He later won the hotly contested election and was president of the country between 1988 and 1993. File Photo by Yonhap/EPA-EFE

Oct. 26 (UPI) -- Roh Tae-woo, a South Korean activist who was involved in the 1979 military coup and later became the country's first democratically elected president, died on Tuesday at a hospital in Seoul. He was 88.

Officials said that Roh, who was South Korean president between 1988 and 1993, died at National University Hospital from complications related to various illnesses and a degenerative disorder.

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A veteran of the Korean War and Vietnam War, Roh led the bid for South Korea to host the 1988 Summer Olympics shortly before he became president. He's also remembered for reaching out to North Korea in an effort to normalize relations, as well improve relations with Russia and China.

He was also involved in the two Koreas signing a denuclearization agreement that banned all nuclear weapons testing, manufacturing and other processes. All nuclear warheads were also removed from U.S. military bases in South Korea as part of the deal.

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A key part of the 1979 military coup that put Chun Doo-hwan in power, Roh eventually became his handpicked successor -- but a pro-democracy uprising in the country in the late 1980s, known as the "June Struggle," ultimately toppled military rule in South Korea and led to the system of democracy that it has today.

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Roh won a hotly contested presidential election as a member of the Democratic Justice Party and was the first leader in South Korea's early days of its modern democracy.

"He was a bridge between authoritarianism and democracy," Lee Chung-hee, professor emeritus at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, told The New York Times.

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"South Korea went through the transition without suffering a bloody revolution."

Since the South Korean Constitution allows all presidents to serve only a single term of five years, Roh left office in 1993 and was later convicted of corruption and mutiny for his role in the 1979 coup. The charges also stemmed from the 1980 Gwangju Massacre, a crackdown on pro-democracy movements in the southwestern city of Gwangju.

A South Korean court sentenced Roh to 22 years in prison for the crimes. The sentence was later reduced to 17 years, but Roh was freed in 1997 after he received a pardon from President Kim Young-sam.

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