President of South Korea
Born August 6, 1946, in Kimhae, South Korea; married Kwon Yang Sook; children: Geon-ho, Jeong-yeon. Education: Studied on his own to become an attorney.
Addresses: Office—c/o Embassy of Korea, 2450 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20008.
Passed South Korean bar examination to become an attorney, 1976; Taejon Regional Court judge; worked as a tax lawyer and then human-rights attorney; won a seat in the National Assembly representing Pusan, 1988; served as Minister of Fisheries in the Millennium Party government, August 2000-April 2001; supreme council member for the Millennium Party, 2001; standing advisor for the Millennium Party, 2001; elected president of South Korea, December, 2002; became leader of new Uri Party, May, 2004.
Roh Moo-hyun's victory in close national elections in South Korea in 2002 heralded a changing of the guard for this Asian economic power of 48 million people. Sworn in at the age of 56, the onetime human-rights lawyer rode the wave of a grass-roots political movement that prompted one news source to call him the Howard Dean of South Korea, referring to the Vermont governor who became an early favorite in the 2004 American presidential race thanks to Internet websites.
Roh made it to South Korea's highest office despite his lack of foreign-policy credentials, and arrived there at a time of increased tensions with neighboring North Korea. "Roh the President is a symbol of a South Korea that's now emerging as a major economic power in the region," asserted Time International's Michael Schuman, "and is eager to be treated as an equal partner with the U.S. on security matters, not as the protectorate it's been since the end of the Korean War."
Roh has sometimes said that his political role model is Abraham Lincoln, the United States president who ended slavery. Like Lincoln, he is a self-taught lawyer from humble beginnings. He was born in 1946 in Kimhae, in southeastern Korea, and grew up in a village called Bonsan. The nearest city was Pusan, a major shipping port and the second-largest city in the South. His family were simple farmers who grew peaches and raised poultry.
Just a year before Roh was born, the Allied victors of World War II divided the Korean peninsula into two sections. It had been a colony of Japan since 1910, and Soviet and American forces shared responsibility for administering it and helping it return to independence. But tensions arose in the late 1940s over the future unification of the two halves, and worries about an entirely communist Korean peninsula began to preoccupy the American administrators in the southern half. War erupted in 1950, with the North Korean side backed by Soviet and Chinese troops, while an immense influx of American and United Nations forces arrived in the South.
In 1953, the year Roh turned seven years old, a stalemate and armistice resulted in a Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, a large swath of border between the two Koreas that became the most heavily guarded frontier in the world. An ardent anti-Communist, Syngman Rhee, led South Korea for the next several years, thanks in part to support from the United States, now South Korea's most important ally. Rhee ruthlessly suppressed dissent, won elections widely suspected of being rigged, and even changed the constitution to allow him to seek another term in 1960.
Imbued with a sense of moral justice from an early age, Roh was an outspoken student in school at times. One annual class assignment for every South Korean schoolchild during his youth involved writing an essay about the achievements of President Rhee. Roh persuaded his entire seventh-grade class to turn in blank pieces of paper, an incident that earned him a suspension. He went on to Pusan Commercial High School, and was a good student when he applied himself. At other times, he skipped class and drank heavily. After finishing in 1966, he was unable to go on to college, since his family could not afford it, and instead did a mandatory stint in the military. He worked menial jobs after being discharged in 1971, such as making fishing nets, and built a small mud hut overlooking Bonsan. In his spare time, he studied to become a lawyer, and passed the bar examination in 1976 on his third try.
Roh became a judge at Taejon Regional Court, and then a tax lawyer. He continued to drink, however, and spent his money on bars, women, and sailboats. He had married a childhood friend, Kwon Yang Sook, by then, but later said that for many years he treated his wife badly, and even hit her. Their marital problems were detailed in a 1994 autobiography, Dear Wife, Please Help Me. Meanwhile, South Korea remained under the control of autocratic leaders. A military dictatorship under Chun Doo Hwan held power from 1980 to 1988 after dissolving the National Assembly and declaring martial law. Chun's government was tough on dissenters as well, and there were widespread human-rights violations. In the 1981 "Boolim Incident," 12 students were arrested in Pusan and detained for two months for possessing banned literature; they were tortured while in custody.
Roh was convinced to take the students' case against the government by his mentor, an attorney named Kim Guang Il. Though he had little interest in human rights, Roh said that he went to see the jailed students, and "when I saw their horrified eyes and their missing toenails, my comfortable life as a lawyer came to an end," a British Broadcasting Corporation report quoted him as saying. He also recalled that his old iconoclast spirit reared itself, noting he "felt ashamed," as he told Time International writer Donald Macintyre. "There were 100 lawyers in Pusan and not one was willing to stick his neck out."
Roh went on to become a leading figure in the pro-democracy movement during the rest of the decade, and was even jailed for three weeks and charged with giving aid to labor-union strikers. Despite the absence of democracy, South Korea became an economic powerhouse during the 1980s, with companies such as Samsung and Hyundai enjoying success first in Asia and then in the greater global market. But the growing middle class took up the protest banner from the students, and the government was pressured to reform. In June of 1987, news that Chun's handpicked successor would succeed him and discussion of constitutional reform would be tabled for the time sparked a wave of massive demonstrations across South Korea. The successor, Roh Tae Woo, began a series of democratic reforms within weeks.
In 1988, Roh decided to enter politics formally with the Unification Democratic Party, a pro-democracy group, and won a seat in the National Assembly representing a district of Pusan. He also came to prominence that same year thanks to televised parliamentary hearings on government corruption and human-rights abuses, during which he relentlessly grilled discredited officials. But he failed to keep his seat in the National Assembly, and also lost his bid for the mayor's office of Pusan a few years later. He had better luck with Seoul voters in a parliamentary elections in 1998, returning to the National Assembly as a representative of the capital city, but lost again in 2000.
Roh had immense name recognition, however, and younger voters liked his reputation as an iconoclast. Many of this generation were calling for a reevaluation of their country's ties to the United States, and he had once said that the 30,000-plus U.S. troops should go home. A grass-roots movement arose to return Roh to politics, with a large number of supporters connecting over the Internet; the influential "OhmyNews" website emerged as a particularly popular information source that did not hesitate to criticize South Korea's old guard and the continuing U.S. military presence. By this time Roh had moved over to the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), another liberal political group, and his supporters managed to successfully petition the party, which was in power at the time, to recognize Roh after his 2000 election loss. Thanks to that effort, he was named a supreme council member and standing advisor in the MDP, and also served a stint as Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, his only government post before being elected to the presidency.
Roh became the MDP candidate in South Korea's 2002 presidential election, in part with the help of a new system whereby the candidates were chosen by popular vote rather than the whims of party officials. South Korean politics had been rocked by countless scandals in recent years, thanks to the sticky ties between politicians and the huge business conglomerates like Hyundai and Samsung, called chaebols. Roh garnered popular support as the outsider candidate, one who had no links to the political elite or the business community. He won the December of 2002 balloting, narrowly beating the Grand National Party candidate Lee Hoi Chang.
Just before his inauguration on February 25, 2003, North Korea fired a short-range missile into the sea in one of the belligerent gestures it made on occasion. Roh did not mention it in his half-hour speech that day, but did note that the North Korean nuclear program was a threat to world peace. His predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, had launched a new effort to improve relations with the North in the late 1990s that he termed South Korea's "sunshine policy." A stunning 2000 summit between Kim and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had given the South Korean Kim a Nobel Peace Prize. Just before Roh's inauguration, however, it was revealed that the summit only took place thanks to $500 million secretly donated by Hyundai to the North Korean government. At a time when millions of North Koreans were said to be starving as a result of its government's relentless spending on military defense, South Koreans were outraged.
Roh sent emissaries to Washington to meet with U.S. State Department officials soon after taking office, but the talks over the North Korean situation stalled. There were worse problems at home, however: a series of campaign-finance scandals came to light during his first year in office, with some of Roh's aides and staff implicated. A wave of resignations and firings swept through the Blue House (the presidential residence); the opposition parties, who still dominated the National Assembly, called for Roh to step down. On March 12, 2004, his foes in the National Assembly gathered enough votes to impeach him on the grounds that he voiced support for the new Uri Party, to which his MDP supporters had decamped, in the run-up to legislative elections scheduled for April.
Roh stayed in the official residence for the next two months as he appealed the decision in the courts, while thousands of South Koreans protested the National Assembly impeachment vote. In the April elections, South Koreans voiced their support further by tripling the Uri Party's number of seats in the National Assembly and ousting many opposition politicians. On May 14, 2004, Roh's impeachment edict was lifted by South Korea's Constitutional Court, and he returned to the business of governing.
Roh's government continued to suffer blows during his second year of a five-year term. There was a national pension-fund crisis, a plan to move the capital city from Seoul to the Chungcheong area, and protests over the deployment of 3,600 South Korean troops as part of the United States-led coalition forces in Iraq. Roh had arrived in office by hinting that the time had come to re-evaluate South Korea's relationship with the United States. In response, an Islamic militant group in Iraq kidnapped a Korean man working there as an interpreter and beheaded him in June.
Despite the political turmoil, Roh is considered a harbinger of new era for his country. South Korean society, heavily influenced by Confucian principles, had placed a premium on age. But at 57 years old, he was one of the younger presidents in South Korean history, and was said to have been helped immensely by his popularity among what is called the "386 Generation"—with the trio of numbers referring to voters who are in their 30s, took part in student protests of the 1980s, and were born in the 1960s.
Among his other political heroes, Roh also cites West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who ruled from 1949 to 1963 as his country experienced what became the permanent separation with its Soviet-controlled former half to the East, but forged ahead with wider plans for a European alliance that laid the groundwork for the immensely successful European Union. Roh has spoken of his hope to unite Asia along the same lines, with a future in which "North-east Asia will be the centre of the world, and we will stand at its heart," Times of London writer Richard Lloyd Parry quoted him as saying. "America has New York, Europe has London, and Asia will have Seoul."
Economist, April 24, 2004, p. 40.
Newsweek International, March 3, 2003, p. 26; August 4, 2003, p. 28; May 31, 2004, p. 53.
New York Times, March 6, 2003, p. A3.
New York Times Magazine, January 19, 2003, p. 20.
Time International, May 6, 2002, p. 19; March 3, 2003, p. 36; July 5, 2004, p. 10.
Times (London, England), March 7, 2003, p. 6.
Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 2003. "Profile: Roh Moo-hyun," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/2535143.stm (August 20, 2004).
"S. Korean president sworn in," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/asiapcf/east/02/24/skorea.inauguration.reut/index.html (February 25, 2003).