SEOUL, JAN. 29 -- South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan, who seized power in an Army coup eight years ago, said today that he is not only willing but eager to cede power when his term ends next month.
Speaking at an elaborately staged news conference amid the regal trappings that have helped make him deeply unpopular in this country, Chun said he hopes to be remembered as the nation's first chief executive to retire willingly. His friend and former Army colleague, Roh Tae Woo, is scheduled to be inaugurated Feb. 25 after winning last month's presidential election.
Chun defended his seizure of power as having been essential for the nation's survival. "The question of legitimacy does not exist as far as I am concerned," he said.
He urged Koreans not to "reopen the wound" of Kwangju, where soldiers gunned down hundreds of civilians protesting Chun's takeover in May 1980. Many Koreans have urged an investigation to determine what role Chun, Roh or other leaders may have played in ordering special forces into the city.
The 57-year-old retired general said he has "many things he can be very proud of." Asked what he regretted or might do differently, Chun cited no mistakes.
"The job was thrust upon me, and I can assure you it was not all pleasurable duty," Chun said. "It was hard work and very demanding duty, and soon I will be liberated from it. . . . Nowadays, I am not getting very much sleep because I'm so excited about moving out."
Visitors who have seen Chun recently have reported finding the normally steely president misty-eyed and displaying some "Richard Nixon-esque recriminations about not being appreciated," as one said.
He told Korean reporters three weeks ago that he finally understood why his predecessor, Park Chung Hee, who was assassinated in 1979 after 18 years in office, held on to "such a painful job for so long."
"I had expected that if I said I would leave here at the end of my term, people would try to understand and cover my mistakes, if any," Chun said. "But such an expectation went amiss. . . . They dug into me and intensified their attack.
"Frankly speaking, in the face of such a situation, one would hardly feel like giving up power, from anger," he added. "In a country like ours, it requires a lot more courage to give up power than to grab it."
One year ago, Koreans still wondered whether Chun would really step down and whether, if he did, he would seek to wield power from behind the scenes. But widespread street protests against his regime last June persuaded Chun to allow direct elections.
During the fall campaign, opposition leaders openly attacked Chun as a military dictator. Even Roh, whose campaign literature carried photographs of President Reagan but not Chun, implicitly criticized him for tolerating torture, financial scandal and other abuses.
Instead of wondering how Chun would hold on to power, Koreans began to wonder whether he could remain in the country -- or, more broadly, whether a man widely viewed as an ex-dictator would be tolerated or investigated in the new era.
Roh's victory Dec. 16 dampened that speculation, too. "I sense that Chun's future in this country before the election was a burning question, but I don't think it's much of an issue anymore," a western diplomat said.
But a Korean political analyst said he believes that Chun eventually will have to leave South Korea.
"Maybe he will be safe while Roh is still in power," he said. "But eventually, he will not be safe. People will not forget. He is too guilty."
An opposition legislator, Hong Sa Duk, said he hopes that Chun "will be respected by the majority of the people for the accomplishment of stepping down."
But asked whether history will take a kinder view of Chun than do many of his contemporaries, Hong said, "No, never."
"He committed criminal mistakes in the course of taking power, and he was one reason for corruption and financial scandal," Hong said.
Chun is disliked by many Koreans for his coup, for the Kwangju incident and for his willingness to allow relatives to hold government jobs and, according to widely circulated reports, to enrich themselves.
But Chun also has been disliked for his imperious style, for his habit of lecturing his people on values and morality and for his aloofness.
Some of those traits were evident today as Chun hosted his first news conference for the foreign media in an ornate dining hall rich with gold leaf. Chun sat in a gold-backed chair larger than everyone else's and smoked a cigarette in a gold-tipped holder.
Presidential aides instructed reporters to rise and applaud when Chun entered and to remove all rings before shaking Chun's hand. Two of the five reporters selected to ask questions had agreed beforehand to deliver short speeches of gratitude.
Chun indicated that he has found such trappings of power a burden.
"I have been deprived of my personal liberty," he said. And, although his imprisonment of political dissidents has been a major issue during his tenure, there was no intended irony apparent when he added, "The one citizen of Korea who is most deprived of this valuable commodity, personal freedom, is the president."