South Korea’s Roh Moo-hyun: An Impossible Idealist
May 27, 2009
The death of Roh Moo-hyun, the 16th president of the Republic of Korea (2003-2008), is a huge shock to South Korea’s political world. A human rights lawyer with no college degree, Roh campaigned to revolutionize Korean politics and society by promoting clean politics, fighting corruption, and challenging personal and elite ties as the basis for advancement in Korean society. His political idealism was both profoundly attractive and disappointing to the South Korean public since he ultimately became a victim to the flaws in the Korean system he had set out to overcome. His apparent suicide on May 23, 2009, following revelations of personal corruption is a shocking political and personal tragedy, with very mixed reverberations for Korean politics.
Roh Moo-hyun’s public appeal in South Korea and the seeds of his personal and political demise lay in his impossible idealism. The overwhelming success of his populist, underdog 2002 presidential campaign-driven primarily by an anti-corruption agenda although the international media characterized his agenda as anti-American-was electrifying and surprising to no one more than Roh Moo-hyun himself. He and his supporters were true believers in the need for reform of South Korean politics and society, but they ultimately could not separate themselves from the human failings of a society of which they were a part.
Roh’s political idealism was incredibly attractive to his supporters, drawn primarily from South Korea’s younger generation of activists who had cut their political teeth on the pro-democracy protests of the 1980s. But the dream of a more perfect Korean society, in which merit and egalitarianism would trump personal connections and hierarchy, proved to be an impossible dream, at least for now.
As president, Roh Moo-hyun had become the core representative of the elite and the pinnacle of the South Korean political hierarchy. This role conflicted with his longstanding idealism as a crusader against South Korea’s political system, and he never seemed to reconcile himself with his role as president. Roh proved to be a high maintenance president, threatening to resign when he faced threats from the conservative establishment and weathering an impeachment motion by his political enemies early in his term.
In the world of international diplomacy and high politics, he beamed like a child visiting Disneyworld for the first time, a marked contrast with his serious and stately predecessor Kim Dae Jung. His mediocre executive performance and ongoing focus on revolutionizing Korean politics rather than managing the national agenda led to widespread public disillusionment by the end of his term.
The high idealism of Roh’s domestic political agenda was an impossible standard in direct opposition to the demands of South Korean political reality. His core supporters saw themselves as the true harbingers of Korean democracy, brushing aside the evolutionary accomplishments of his fellow pro-democracy predecessors, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung. A high moment of his presidency was a public debate with the nation’s senior prosecutors in which he challenged a bureaucratic system based on seniority.
Roh’s greatest accomplishments lay in acts of omission rather than acts of commission: Blue House non-interference with an investigation of his own political allies for corruption during his own term in office marked a watershed in Korean political reform, this despite the fact that corruption uncovered in connection with his campaign proved to be an order of magnitude less than that of his main opponent, Lee Hoi-chang. The $6 million his family is alleged to have received as he left the presidency was far less than the hundreds of millions of dollars his predecessors received while in office.
But the idealism that galvanized Roh’s unlikely rise also proved to be his undoing. When corruption allegations became public earlier this year, Roh wrote on his website that “From now on, the name Roh cannot be a symbol of the values you pursue. I’m no longer qualified to speak about democracy and justice . . . You should abandon me.” His suicide note stated that “the suffering caused by me is too great to too many people. The suffering in store for the future is too much to bear. The remainder of my life will only be a burden to others.” Ultimately, Roh’s impossible idealism could not be reconciled with the realities of political life in South Korea.
The outpouring of public mourning led by Roh’s supporters may pose a real political challenge to the administration of Lee Myung-bak, which has found itself vulnerable to public criticism for reinforcing elitism and deepening longstanding Korean social and political divisions. Just as Lee benefited from Roh’s perceived failures during the 2007 election campaign, he may now be more vulnerable to criticism as a result of Roh’s demise. Already, there are Internet rumors that Roh’s prosecution for corruption was really politically motivated persecution by the Lee Myung-bak administration against Roh and his closest supporters.
The longer-term challenge will be the impact of the death of Roh Moo-hyun and his deeply conflicted legacy as a symbol of idealism in Korean politics. Although Korean progressives are in deep disarray, to the extent that public disillusionment persists with the current political status quo there are embers that could catch fire to launch a new generation of idealist Korean political reformers. Those reformers will want to combine idealism with a dose of pragmatism and competency if they are to succeed in implementing Roh’s impossible dreams.
Scott Snyder directs The Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy. His latest book, “China’s Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security,” was published by Lynne Rienner earlier this year. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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