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Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Korean Republic's Presidential X-Files, Part IX: Roh Moo-hyun and the Participatory Government


Roh Moo-hyun (Hangul/Hanja/Romanization: 노무현/盧武鉉/Noh Mu-hyeon; Born: 1 September 1946 – Committed Suicide: 23 May 2009) was the Ninth President of the Republic of Korea (2003–2008). Roh's pre-presidential political career was focused on human rights advocacy for student activists in South Korea. His electoral career later expanded to a focus on overcoming regionalism in South Korean politics, culminating in his election to the presidency. He achieved a large following among younger internet users, particularly at the website OhMyNews, which aided his success in the presidential election.

Roh Moo-hyun was born into a poor farming family with ancestral roots from Zhejiang Province, China which settled down in Korea many years ago. He is a member of Gwangju Roh Clan (광주 노씨/光州盧氏), a clan which is originated from Gwangju Metropole. He was born on 1 September 1946, at Bongha Village (122-15 Bongha Avenue/Bongha-ro, Bonsan-ri 8-279 beonji, JinYeong-eup, Gimhae, Southern Gyeongsang Province). His parents had three boys and two girls, and Roh was the youngest of his family. In 1953, he entered Daechang Elementary School. He received high grades, but was quite often absent from school to assist his parents. While in sixth grade, with the encouragement of his school teacher, he became the president of the school. As he entered Jin-yeong Middle School, a writing contest was held to commemorate Syngman Rhee's birthday. Roh tried to start a student movement against it, but was caught and suspended from the school.

Roh Moo-hyun decided to become a lawyer due to the influence of his elder brother who had studied law but had died in a car accident. Roh studied on his own to pass the bar exam in 1975 (South Korea does not currently require bar examinees to have graduated from college, university, or law school). In 1977, he became a regional judge in Daejeon, but quit in 1978, and became a lawyer.

In 1981, he defended students who had been tortured for suspicion of possession of contraband literature. Following this he decided to become a human rights lawyer. In early 2003, he was quoted as saying, "After that defense, my life was totally changed. At first, even I couldn't believe that they had been tortured that harshly. However, when I saw their horrified eyes and their missing toenails, my comfortable life as a lawyer came to an end. I became a man that wanted to make a difference in the world." With fellow human rights lawyers, he pointed out that this case was forged, then claimed that the National Security Act (South Korea) itself should be judged.

In 1985 he started to participate in civic movements by assuming permanent power of attorney on behalf of the Busan council of citizen democracy. He opposed the autocratic regime in place at the time in South Korea, and participated in the pro-democracy June Democracy Movement in 1987 against Chun Doo-hwan. The same year he was jailed while investigating the cause of death of the Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering factory worker Lee Seok-Kyu, who had been killed by a stray police tear gas bullet while on strike. Roh was accused of 'unapproved interference in the case' and 'hindering the funeral'. Although he was released in twenty days because of public opinion against the arrest, his lawyer's license was revoked after the incident in political retribution.

Roh entered politics in 1988 when he was invited by Kim Young-sam to join the Democratic Reunification Party (Korean: 통일민주당). That same year, he was elected as a member of the National Assembly, representing Dong-gu, Busan. He came to wider public attention with his cross-examination of the government over political corruption allegations in a parliamentary hearing.

In 1990, Kim Young-sam merged his party with the Democratic Justice Party to form the Democratic Liberal Party, a forerunner of the Grand National Party. Roh did not participate in the party and he criticized it as "betrayal against the democracy movement". In 1991, before the election of the national assembly, the Weekly Chosun posted an article that alleging that Roh was a politician with hidden wealth. Roh sued the company for defamation and won, but lost the election for his seat.

Roh founded the new party with Lee Bu-Yeong, Lee Chul, Kim Won-Gi, and Kim Jeong-Gil, but before the presidential election, after the Democratic Liberal Party merged with the Unified Democratic Party, he decided to reconcile with Kim Dae-jung to 'bring the military government and their political heir into justice'.

Subsequently, Roh reconciled with Kim when he endorsed his candidacy in the 1997 Presidential election. At the meeting, Kim Dae-jung welcomed Roh and his party saying "Today is a very pleasant day. That pleasure is not only because we now work together, but also because I could relieve a burden in my mind that I have been carrying (since we separated)." Roh returned to office in 1998, when Lee Myung-bak resigned his seat because of a violation of election law, winning a seat in the ensuing by-election.

In 2000, Roh ran for the National Assembly representing Buk-gu and Gangseo-gu in Busan as part of a campaign to overcome regionalism in Korean politics, but was defeated. His defeat in the election, however, proved fortuitous when his supporters formed Nosamo, the first political fan club in Korea. His supporters were inspired by his commitment to overcoming regionalism. In 2000, Roh was appointed Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries under Kim Dae-jung, and this position would constitute his major government experience prior to the presidency.

Roh got public attention when he participated in candidate election of his party. The candidate election itself also got high public attention because it allowed the vote not only from the party members, but also the local citizens. At first, his approval rate was 10%, allowing much gap with leading candidate Lee In-Jae, but Roh constantly earned much supporters by his notable speeches, especially in Ulsan, and the result of poll that Roh's approval rate was 41.7%, 1.1% higher than the Lee Hoi-chang, candidate of the opponent party, convinced the voters of his party.

Roh won the presidency on 19 December 2002, by defeating Lee Hoi-chang with a narrow 2% margin of victory. At 2003, right before his inauguration, he described his plan as "I will root the method of discussion inside the government.", and added, "discussion should be familiarized until we are called 'Republic of discussion'."

Roh's election was notable for the arrival in power of a new generation of Korean politicians, the so-called 386 Generation, (i.e. people in their thirties when the term was coined, who had attended university in the 1980s, and who were born in the 1960s). This generation had been veterans of student protests against authoritarian rule, and advocated a conciliatory approach towards North Korea, even at the expense of good relations with the USA.

Despite high initial hopes, his presidency encountered strong opposition from the conservative Grand National Party and media. They constantly accused him of incompetence, and insulting criticism was frequently published in the media. As a result, many of Roh's policies, including a plan to move the capital, and a plan to form a coalition with the opposition, were also attacked and made no progress.

Roh dubbed his administration the "Participatory Government," and entered office intent on introducing an ambitious new agenda. Policy goals for the Roh administration included the continuance of the existing Sunshine Policy of engagement towards North Korea, the establishment of Korea as a business hub in Northeast Asia, the expansion of social welfare, the pursuit of "balanced national development" to help underdeveloped areas, the eradication of corruption, reform of education and tax systems, reform of labor-management relations, reform of mass media, and a recasting of the relationship with the United States and Japan.

As his policy for eradicating corruption inside the government had included many administrative reforms, he had to face high oppositions. During the reformation of the prosecution, to resolve the opposition, he suggested a TV forum. The prosecutors insisted that Roh appointed the major positions of the prosecutor's office without consulting the personnel committee, and the Roh answered that "The current members of the personnel committee themselves represents the old prosecution which has to be changed, if we do not change now, it would sustain the old prosecution at least few months." Three months into his presidency, He commented about the opposition problem, stating "I'm worrying the opposition that maybe I cannot continue the presidency while I get that much of it." That comment was quoted partly by conservative media, ('I cannot continue the presidency') and Roh was bolstered skepticism about his ability and experience. Roh set the tone of his administration with a number of adventurous policies, and measures to uncover and reveal the names of the descendants of Japanese collaborators. The investigations, criticized by opposition parties as a covert means of attacking them, and coming too late to provide substantive redress, mostly resulted in damage to his own party members.

Roh and his supporters left the Millennium Democratic Party in 2003 to form a new party, the Uri Party (열린우리당, lit. "Our Open Party"). Directly ahead of the National Assembly elections, Roh voiced support for the Uri Party, which constituted a technical violation of Constitutional provisions mandating presidential impartiality. When Roh refused demands to apologize, opposition lawmakers saw their chance, and on 12 March 2004, the South Korean National Assembly voted to impeach him on charges of illegal electioneering. The vote was 193–2 (Uri Party members abstained from the vote). Roh's supporters physically blocked the motion for three days in open combat, and had to be hauled out by security guards. Roh's executive power was suspended pending a final decision by the Constitutional Court, and Prime Minister Goh Kun ran the country as the Acting President.

The National Assembly's attempt to impeach Roh was largely opposed by the public. From 12 March 2004, to 27 March, protest against the impeachment motion was led by 'citizen's movement for eradicating corruption'. According to the police, 50,000 people gathered to protest in 13 March alone.

Although Roh's popularity had hovered around 30%, the impeachment was taken as a power struggle against the political reform and the choice of the citizen, and Roh's popularity went up soon after the assembly's vote to impeach Roh. The results of the April 2004 parliamentary election showed public support for him, with the Uri Party winning a majority of seats.

On 14 May 2004, the Constitutional Court overturned the impeachment decision, restoring Roh as President. After the incident, Roh joined the Uri party as a member, officially making the Uri party as the ruling party.

As a part of his balanced national development campaign to reverse the concentration of wealth in Seoul, Roh also pursued a plan to relocate the capital 100 miles away to Chungcheong, ostensibly to relieve congestion. Roh had made this promise during his campaign, and pursued its fulfillment, despite convincing few voters outside the Chungcheong region of the benefits of the move. After much controversy, the Constitutional Court obviated Roh's plans by ruling that the relocation of the capital was unconstitutional because it 'opposes the custom that has to be considered as the constitution', thus inflicting a huge blow to Roh's political standing. Roh's plan was then amended to the creation of an "administrative capital," though this plan has also not yet seen completion. The issue of the proposed "administrative capital" remains controversial as of 2010 in plans for Sejong City, the exact nature of which continues to be a politically divisive issue even within the ruling Grand National Party.

With the controversies concerning the capital, perceptions of neglect and mismanagement of the economy had grown. Although exports performed at record levels and the economy grew, growth still lagged behind both the previous administration and the rest of the world, while the domestic economy stagnated. At the same time regulations proliferated, investment capital exited the country, unemployment (especially among the young) increased, wealthy students flocked overseas as the education system stagnated, and housing prices in Seoul soared far beyond the reach of the average citizen. Roh responded by dismissing criticism as "shameless mudslinging," and touted the achievements of his government in increasing national competitiveness, strengthening the economy. This somewhat cavalier attitude led to his Uri Party suffering consecutive defeats in the Assembly, before eventually collapsing. Roh's unpopularity had become a liability for his party, and a new party was needed to disassociate from him. The Uri Party would thus be revamped and renamed as the Democratic Party, and is currently the main opposition party in the National Assembly.

Roh's ambitious initial promises to establish Korea as an international business hub in Asia faded soon after his election. Instead, Korea under Roh suffered negative publicity in the foreign business community due to prosecutorial investigations on the purchase and sale of Korea Exchange Bank by the Lone Star Fund, spurring foreign investors to join their domestic counterparts in leaving the country. When housing prices soared, To prevent speculative bubble like Japanese asset price bubble crisis, Roh introduced additional 1~3% of property tax on real estate exceeding 600 million won (about US$600,000). This efficiently slowed down the bubble, but this policy met high opposition by the riches who had to pay higher tax. At the same time, Roh also increased welfare spending by 18% a year, and drastically increased spending by increasing the size of the civil service by more than 95,700 new hires, or approximately 60 people a day. Criticism of lax discipline among the civil service and police force was high during his government.

The remainder of Roh's term was characterized by a number of campaigns pursued to varying degrees of success and completion. One of the more successful campaigns (at least during his term) was Roh's pursuit of an FTA with the United States, concluded in April 2007 after many months of negotiations by Kim Hyun-jong, the deputy minister for trade. Roh successfully pushed for the FTA in spite of domestic opposition from his traditional leftist constituency (who denounced it as "neoliberal") and various groups (particularly farmers) opposed to market opening.

After leaving office, Roh returned to his hometown of Bongha Maeul. The constantly growing numbers of visits by his political supporters were seen as a threat to the Grand National Party. Fourteen months later, Roh was suspected of bribery by prosecutors, and the subsequent investigation attracted public attention. This scandal, the collapse of the "Pro-Roh faction" of politicians, the collapse of the Uri Party and the defeat of its successor the Democratic Party in the National Assembly, and the defeat of Roh's designated successor in the presidential elections, marked a decline in the political fortunes of the 386 Generation that had brought Roh to power.

Roh Moo-Hyun died on the morning of 23 May 2009 after apparently jumping from a 45-meter (150 ft) cliff known as Bueong-i Bawi (부엉이 바위/lit. Owl's Rock) behind his rural home in his home village of Bongha. He sustained serious head injuries and was sent by car (not by ambulance) to Seyoung hospital nearby at 7:20 am and moved to Busan University Hospital at around 8:15 am (and pronounced dead at around 9:30 am (00:30 GMT). His suicide was confirmed by police. According to police, Roh left a suicide note on his computer apologizing for making "too many people suffer" and requested that his body be cremated.

"I am in debt to so many people. I have caused too great a burden to be placed upon them. I can't begin to fathom the countless agonies down the road. The rest of my life would only be a burden for others. I am unable to do anything because of poor health. I can't read, I can't write. Do not be too sad. Isn't life and death all a part of nature? Do not be sorry. Do not feel resentment toward anyone. It is fate. 
Cremate me. And leave only a small tombstone near home. I've thought on this for a long time. "

10th president Lee Myung-bak stated that "the news was truly unbelievable and deeply sad." Justice Minister Kim Kyung-han said the corruption case against him would be formally closed. However, he did not say whether the former president's family would continue to be investigated.

Roh's suicide followed the suicide of a number of high profile figures under corruption investigations in Korea in recent years, including the former secretary of Prime Minister Kim Young-chul, former Busan mayor Ahn Sang-Young (who committed suicide while in prison), Park Tae-young, former governor of Jeolla province, and Chung Mong-hun, a former Hyundai executive. Roh himself had been sued by the widow of former Daewoo E&C head Nam Sang-Guk for allegedly making defamatory comments that drove her husband to throw himself off of a bridge. Roh's suicide was followed later in the year by the suicide of another politician, the Mayor of Yangsan, who was being subject to a corruption investigation.

By 27 May, Roh's bodyguard revealed that he was not with the former president when he committed suicide. Roh's public funerary ceremony involved both Buddhist and Catholic rites. Hundreds of thousands of supporters turned out to pay their respects in memorial shrines erected around the country, as did President Lee Myung-bak and numerous other prominent politicians. Sporadic violent demonstrations in Seoul immediately after the funeral resulted in the detention of 72 people.

Roh's suicide resulted in a sudden positive shift in domestic perception towards the late President, leading one critical professor to comment, "How could he become an instant saint upon his suicide?" Perceptions of an excessive investigation on Roh's alleged improprieties boosted support for the opposition Party (itself formed when Roh's then unpopularity made it a liability to be associated with him), giving them enough leverage to demand that President Lee Myung-bak apologize for the "politically motivated" investigation they claimed caused Roh's death, and discipline those responsible. Support for the opposition party increased to 28.3%, outpolling the ruling GNP at 23.5%. The Democratic Party also decided to block the scheduled opening of the National Assembly until the Lee Myung-bak government accepted responsibility for Roh's suicide. The chief prosecutor in Roh's bribery case also resigned. A year after Roh died, his autobiography was published by his personal and political fellows. Based on Roh's previous books, unpublished draft, notes, letters and interviews, it follows Roh's life from birth to death. He died about 3 months before 8th President Kim Dae-jung died on 18 August 2009 of multiple organ dysfunction syndrome.