SEOUL — Roh Tae-woo, South Korea’s last military-backed president who forged ties with Communist foes, tolerated the country’s rambunctious transition from dictatorship to democracy but ended up in jail for mutiny and corruption, died on Tuesday. He was 88.
Mr. Roh died in an intensive care unit at Seoul National University Hospital, the hospital said, providing no further details.
Mr. Roh, president from 1988 to 1993, led South Korea through a tumultuous period as a transitional, and largely unpopular, figure between military and civilian rule.
“He was a bridge between authoritarianism and democracy,” said Lee Chung-hee, a professor emeritus at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “South Korea went through the transition without suffering a bloody revolution.”
Roh Tae-woo was born in Daegu, in southeast Korea, on Dec. 4, 1932, the son of a rural government official who died when Mr. Roh was seven. At the Korean Military Academy he met another poor family’s son, Chun Doo-hwan, and the two forged a friendship that would shape their country’s future.
Speaking the same dialect and bonded by their regional prejudices, the two and their allies from Gyeongsang, a southeast province, climbed the army hierarchy, sponsored by the military strongman at the time, Park Chung-hee. They pulled one another up through a secret club they formed, called Hanahoe, which roughly meant “an association for one-for-all, all-for-one.”
When Mr. Park was assassinated by his spy chief in 1979, Mr. Roh, a division commander charged with guarding the border with North Korea, diverted his troops to support Mr. Chun, at the time a major general and head of the Army Intelligence Command, as Mr. Chun seized power in a coup on Dec. 12, 1979.
They also deployed tanks and paratroopers into the southwestern city of Gwangju, where citizens rose up in an armed rebellion in May 1980. The resulting bloodbath, which came to symbolize the brutality of the South’s military at the time, took at least 191 lives, including 26 soldiers and police officers.
Mr. Roh remained a low-key and faithful No. 2 during Mr. Chun’s iron-fisted rule, which lasted until early 1988. He oversaw South Korea’s successful bid for the 1988 Olympics, beating huge odds against the bid of rival Japan. In a memoir, he wrote that part of his winning strategy was to impress International Olympic Committee members by assigning Korean beauty queens as their personal escorts at I.O.C. meetings.
In 1987, Mr. Chun handpicked Mr. Roh as the presidential candidate of his ruling party. That effectively made him the next president — the country chose its president by an electoral college filled with pro-government delegates — until citizens rose up in Seoul and other cities to stage huge protests demanding an end to military rule.
To head off rioting, Mr. Chun and Mr. Roh acceded to demands for political reforms, including holding a popular election. Mr. Roh won that contest easily when the opposition vote was split between two dissident candidates, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, two men who despised each other as much as they disliked military rule. Mr. Roh’s victory made him the country’s…