Roh Moo-Hyun: an Unlikely Life
I do not believe that humans have a pre-destined path in their lives. I do, however, believe that when humans are born, they all have the most likely path for their lives. If a person is born to loving, happy parents with sufficient financial resources and enough care to educate and nurture, it is most likely that she will live an easy, happy life. That’s not a surprise. Similarly, if a person is born to a hateful, broken family without any money and any desire to provide education, it is most likely that he will live a difficult, unhappy life. That is not a surprise either.
What makes human condition interesting are the turns and deviations from that most likely path. It is even more interesting when those turns are consciously made into a direction that provides the most resistance. In fact, it is those turns that define our lives.
Throughout his life, Roh Moo-Hyun often chose to make the most unlikely and drastic turn away from his likely path of life. And truly, those turns made him what he is.
Roh Moo-Hyun was born on September 1, 1946, at Bong-Ha village near Gimhae, Korea. The only claim to fame that Bong-Ha had was its dreary reputation – “a place where crows turn away because there is nothing to eat.” His parents were mere peasants. Roh almost did not enter middle school because his family could not pay the tuition. Roh would not have gone to high school had he not received a full scholarship at his high school – he was preparing for a civil service exam after graduating middle school. He never went to college.
After graduating high school, after applying for and failing to get a job several times, Roh built a hut made of dirt in a nearby mountain, and began studying for the bar on his own. Apparently it took him around 10 years to make it (seven if you discount the military service,) but he did – he passed the bar in 1975, when he was 29.
Roh’s passing the bar needs to be put in perspective. Korean bar in 1975 was not like Korean bar in 2009, and most definitely not like American bar in 2009. Out of the thousands who take the bar exam, only the top 500 are allowed to pass per year. Because there were so few attorneys, becoming a lawyer was an automatic path to power and prosperity. Back in those days, when you passed the bar, your elders would bow to you and call you yeonggamnim – “old man”, an unthinkable thing to do in a Confucian society like Korean in any other situation. And here is a guy who never went to college, took any prep courses or had any tutoring passing that exam. He nonetheless managed to be one of Korea’s top 500, and forged himself a way out of poverty and into wealth and power. This was the first significant turn in Roh’s life away from its pre-determined course.
But the second turn in Roh’s life would involve willingly throwing away that wealth and power he managed to achieve. Roh was appointed to be a judge, but he quit after only serving 8 months. Then for several years he was in private practice, specializing in tax law. He came to nearly monopolize every major estate tax cases in Busan area, earning plenty of money for a very comfortable life. His hobbies included yachting.
In 1981, twenty-two Busan-area people who were known for their democratization activities were arrested and subjected to tortures such as beating, waterboarding and electrocution for as long as 63 days, in an effort to frame them as communist rebels. Prosecution claimed they plotted to overthrow the government and indicted them with charges of treason that carried sentences as long as 10 years in prison.
Remember, this is only one year removed from May 18 Democratization Movement, when the Chun Doo-Hwan dictatorship killed 151 civilians protesting for democracy and sentenced 7 more to death for insurrection and treason. It was clear to everyone in Korea at that time that torture and death was always a possibility for those who opposed the dictatorship. But that did not stop Roh, who represented the defendants pro bono. Since then, Roh began to be known as a human rights and democratization activist prominent enough that at one point, the National Prosecutor’s Office sought an arrest warrant for him four times over a single night.
[Roh during Burim Incident representation (right)]
But once again, Roh Moo-Hyun turned his life away from its most likely course – and this is perhaps the turn that eventually made him the president. Roh belonged to Kim Young-Sam’s party, and Roh’s stature rose as Kim Young-Sam’s did. The three-party merger all but guaranteed Kim Young-Sam’s coming presidency. Roh’s path of least resistance surely was to follow Kim Young-Sam.
But Roh did not, and his political life suffered as a consequence. Roh would lose his seat in 1992. He would run for different elected offices in 1995, 1996 and 2000, only to lose again, again and again. (He did serve as a National Assemblyman in a truncated term between 1998 and 2000, when he took over the seat of an Assemblyman who resigned amidst an investigation for elections law violation. The resigned Assemblyman was none other than the current president Lee Myeong-Bak.) However, Roh’s efforts did not go unnoticed: Roh perhaps is the first Korean politician to have a self-generated fan club, established in 2000.
The Significance of Presidential Election of 2002
Despite all this, it is fair to say that Roh was given a very small chance to win in the presidential election of 2002. To understand why, it is necessary to understand how political parties operated in Korea until that time.
In essence, political parties in Korea have been (and to a degree still are) an organizational vehicle for certain individuals to achieve and maintain political power. An important corollary to this definition is that political parties were not organized along any meaningful ideology or a set of policies. Broadly speaking, one could say there have been two large streams of political ideology in Korea – pro-dictatorship parties and democratization activist parties. However, as exemplified in the three-party merger in 1990, those distinctions did not mean much as long as power was to be had.
In practice, this means that an average Korean did not have a lot of say in an election. The boss of the party tightly controlled the process of who may run under the party slate. And in any election, a candidate without the organizational and financial strength provided by a political always faced nearly certain defeat. This applied to the presidential elections as well. The bosses of the party chose who would be the candidates of the election (usually themselves), and voters were expected to show up and choose one or the other.
This all changed in 2002, when the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), to which Roh belonged, decided that it would hold American-style primaries to choose its presidential candidate. The idea certainly had a gimmicky feel to it – then-president Kim Dae-Jung, the boss of the MDP, was not very popular at the end of his term, and MDP’s repeat appeared to be a long shot. The candidate for the opposing Grand National Party (GNP) was Lee Hoi-Chang, the same guy who lost to Kim Dae-Jung five years previously; each of Kim’s failure served as a reminder that Korean people could have chosen Lee five years ago. MDP needed something to turn the tide that appeared to be heading toward GNP’s way.
On the other hand, however, I submit that first, American-style primary elections are good for Korean democracy, and second, GNP would have never done it first. GNP is a party born out of the three-party merger. At that point it still counted as its members many cronies of the military dictatorship. (In fact, a GNP Assemblyman, a former prosecutor, tortured an MDP Assemblymen, a former democratization activist, before they won their seats.) While GNP had many worthy members at that time, the anti-democratic legacy of the party was still too pervasive for it to take a bold step like primary elections.
Before the primary elections, GNP’s boss was Lee Hoi-Chang, and it was obvious that Lee would run. But because the boss of MDP was the outgoing president, it was not very clear who would run in the presidential election. It was widely presumed that Lee In-Je, a heavyweight politician who had the most control of MDP’s insider politics, would come out to oppose Lee Hoi-Chang. Roh Moo-Hyun, at that point the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, was not considered to be a serious threat. Although Roh was gaining popularity, he was hardly a national figure; few in MDP considered him to be a leader of the party.
Oh, how Roh proved them wrong. Beginning in March 2001, Roh embarked upon the most magnificent president campaign in Korean history. (Although it must be granted that the history of campaign strategy in Korea is really not very long.) Roh’s campaign was so beautiful that I can’t help but smile whenever I think about it. Recently, Josh Tucker of the blog Silver Screen and Roll described Kobe Bryant this way: “[Kobe] has the most complete, versatile, and polished skill set in the NBA. Pull-up jumper, leaner, runner, floater, fadeaway, fallaway, midrange, long-range, close-range, pump fake, jab step, up-and-under, dunk, layup, left hand, right hand, face-up, post-up, driving, elevating, strength, savvy, power, finesse, balance, body control, footwork. Bryant can do it all.”
Similarly, Roh’s campaign had everything that a good presidential campaign should have. My own list of a successful campaign is not nearly as exhaustive as the list of basketball skills above, but here are some essential things that a successful campaign has: vision, charisma, fundraising, speechmaking, connectability, relentlessness, ground-level organization, trench warfare. (I am certain I am missing a few – I am happy to take suggestions.) Do everything above well, and you win elections.
[Roh during 2002 presidential campaign]
Roh’s campaign was a thing of beauty because it had everything. It offered a grand vision for the people – a “society where rules apply equally and where common sense works”. The image of Roh’s illustrious career provided much more charismatic dynamism compared to Lee, who was older and appeared to be more wooden. Roh’s speechmaking ability was well-renowned before and throughout his presidency. Roh’s campaign television ad, showing him simply playing a guitar and singing, became an instant sensation – here is a guy we can relate to, voters thought, instead of that other guy who does not seem to have anything in common with an average person. Roh had an inspired group of fans who took care of finances and ground battles, as donations though “Piggy Banks of Hope” would generate a large and clean source of campaign finance. And when it came time to get down and dirty, Lee Hoi-Chang was hit with the allegations that his son was a draft-dodger.
The brilliance of Roh’s campaign was in stark contrast to those of his opponents’, who were still stuck in a basketball game without the three-second rule, the shot clock and the three-point line, so to speak. Lee In-Je used the tried-and-true method of accusing Roh as a communist sympathizer by pointing out that Roh’s father-in-law was a known communist. However, Roh’s simple retort – “So you want me to drop my wife to become the president?” – instantly showed the hackneyed state of that tactic, and the hackneyed state of Lee In-Je who dared to use that tactic. GNP belatedly implemented its own primary elections trying to replicate the buzz that Roh created by winning them, but GNP’s primaries only appeared formalistic and feeble when Lee Hoi-Chang won them all with no real opposition.
In explaining Roh’s victory, many focus on the a few events that appeared to give Roh an edge that he perhaps did not deserve, such as the draft-dodging scandal for Lee Hoi-Chang’s son or the strong wave of anti-Americanism in 2002 following the armored vehicle incident. But this is too narrow of a view. In a fairly conducted national election, victory is never achieved by tactics alone. To be sure, well-executed tactics are essential for victory. However, at the end of the day, the winner of a democratic election does so by following the mandate of the democratic system – that is, by delivering what the electorate wants.
Roh did not win the election through deception or trickery, as his opponents are quick to conclude. Roh won because ultimately, he delivered what Korean people wanted. All the items listed above do not mean anything unless they resonate with the electorate. In particular, Roh’s vision was exactly what Koreans have craved – a society in which rules apply equally and common sense worked. Roh also offered many other things that Korean people wanted in their political lives. Korean people wanted more control in the democracy that they won. In the three previous presidential elections before 2002, Korean people have little say in who becomes the candidate – that process was all done behind closed doors among powerful people. But now, Korean people can directly jump into deciding who will run for the president, and can finance that candidate directly. This participation gave much more legitimacy to Roh compared to any other presidential candidate in the history of Korea.
Roh’s election was not simply a success for himself – it was a success for Korean democracy. By electing Kim Dae-Jung in 1997, Korean democracy already proved that it can peacefully transfer power from one side of the politics, which originally had all the power through military dictatorship, to the other side of the politics which originally had no power at all. Now, within nine years since 1992 (or within 14 years since 1987, if Roh Tae-Woo’s legitimacy is to be charitably considered,) the election of Roh Moo-Hyun showed that the power transfer was not an ephemeral event that could be taken away through rigged elections or a military coup. Roh’s election proved that democracy was truly here to stay in Korea.
The Roh Presidency: the Good and the Bad, the What and the How
Popular perception of the Roh presidency prior to Roh’s death was that it was an unmitigated disaster. I don’t believe that is the case. Although the media pendulum has swung too much to the other direction since Roh’s death by glorifying everything about Roh, it was undeniable that Roh did have a few significant achievements during his presidency.
First, it is fair to say that the decks were stacked against Roh from the very beginning. Although Roh was the president, the existing power structure did not favor him. GNP was only slightly weakened during the Kim Dae-Jung presidency, and its organization retained its strength. On the other than, Roh was an outsider even within MDP, lacking the strength of his own organization. In practical terms, this meant that high governmental positions were filled with relatively younger people with no real governance experience, because anyone in Korea who did have such experience gained that experience by surviving in the military dictatorship. Mostly due to this, the Roh administration frequently suffered from severe incompetence on the ministerial level.
In the same vein, it was extremely unlikely that Roh would receive a fair shake from the major newspapers. These newspapers survived the authoritarian era by serving as the bullhorn of the dictatorship. Even after democratization, the three largest newspapers of Korea – Chosun, JoongAng and Dong-A – tended to lean toward the conservative side of Korean politics. Thus, it was difficult for Roh to implement his policies and receive a fair assessment of the success or failure of those policies.
Nonetheless, Roh did have a few significant achievements, and it must be noted that those achievements tended to be against his own interest. Perhaps the most significant was a considerable weakening of the power held by the National Prosecutor’s Office. The Prosecutor’s Office, at its worst, was truly the “dogs of the power” as it was known among Korean people. It was always willing to move at the president’s direction, striking the opposition with arbitrary charges of treason and insurrection. By weakening that office, Roh rid himself a major instrument for silencing his critics.
Roh administration also pushed for and entered into a free trade agreement with the United States in favorable terms, although his major supporters, particularly unions, staunchly opposed the agreement. (This would later come to haunt the succeeding Lee Myeong-Bak administration in a major way through in the form of beef protests.) Despite his reputation as an anti-Americanist, Roh cooperated with the U.S. when it clearly favored Korea’s interest regardless of the opposition from his supporters, e.g. by sending Korean troops to Iraq.
But Roh’s crowning achievement as the president is not what he did do, but what he did not do. Again, Roh reduced his own power by weakening the Prosecutor’s Office. Similarly, Roh never used any governmental body as an instrument of power. Here is what one needs to understand about Korea: it is a society in which every important person is at least a little bit corrupt. That’s what happens if a country spends decades under dictatorships and behind-closed-doors political economy. Therefore, if a person in power really wants to mess with you, all she needs to do is to sic a law enforcement agency and attempt to apply the law in the strictest sense. A Korean adage describes this situation perfectly: “Dust falls from everyone if beaten hard enough.” For those in power in Korea, silencing their critics is easy: pursue anyone hard enough, and sooner or later some illegality will dust up that will land her in jail.
But Roh never did any of this. There was never any dubious prosecution of his political opponents. No midnight raids on the political groups that he did not like. No harassing tax audit by National Tax Service on companies that he did not like. No secret dossier compiled on individuals by the National Intelligence Service. These are all the things that Roh’s predecessors did to varying degrees (not to mention torture and mass murder,) but Roh stayed away from them. The conservative press screamed bloody murder when Roh, enraged by constant negative coverage (some of which, I do agree, he surely deserved,) shut down the pressroom in the Blue House – conveniently forgetting that 20 years ago, they would have faced tax audit, jail time or disbandment of their company under the conservative presidents/dictators with whom they curried favor. Roh could have made his enemies’ lives much more miserable, but he did not. Instead, he trusted that the democratic process would work itself out. He sat tight during his impeachment based on tenuous charges, and he obeyed the judiciary when the Constitutional Court shot down the crown jewel of his domestic policy – the Administrative Capital – in an extremely dubious ruling.
This achievement alone puts Roh away from the harsh assessment of utter failure. In fact, one can argue that Roh was one of the top three among the eight presidents that Republic of Korea has had, excluding the current one. Seriously, who would you take above Roh? Syngman Rhee, the guy who rigged numerous elections and appointed himself to be the lifetime president?
Weighing against the foregoing positive points, Roh’s presidency contained no major disaster. Economy grew at a reasonable pace. No major physical accidents like a collapsed department store, a crumbled bridge or an exploding gas main that killed hundreds. (These things all happened in Korea previously.) Relationship with North Korea improved, and there was no major militaristic saber rattling from the North as it happened before and after Roh’s presidency. (Although it must be noted that North Korea acquired nuclear weapon during Roh’s presidency.) Transparency in government improved greatly as well.
One may ask, what about the bribery scandal? I readily concede that it was no small affair. Much of Roh’s authority hinged on the moral superiority of his position compared to his opposition. So it is indeed significant when Roh and his family did in fact receive $6 million – certainly no small amount – as a bribe. But this needs to be put in perspective. Roh is not blameless, but his blame must be proportionate to his crime.
If you were the president of a major industrial nation who is bent on corruption, wouldn’t you earn more than $6 million? After all, $6 million buys all of three luxury condos in the posh part of Seoul. That’s the best that a president can do? And surely, the predecessors of Roh outdid him by several degrees of magnitude. Chun Doo-Hwan collected $1 billion in his slush fund (assuming $1 = 1,000 won,) and this was in the 1980s dollar that is worth twice as much as today. Roh Tae-Woo collected $500 million in slush fund during his presidency. Kim Young-Sam’s son collected $20 million. Even as recently as 2002, in Lee Hoi-Chang and the Grand National Party received $80 million in bribes to use in the election.
Why does the amount of bribe matter? It matters because the larger the bribe, the greater is the impact of corruption. Roh’s $6 million came from one owner of one mid-sized company. On its own, that bribery does not pose a systematic risk to Korea. But when the slush fund is $1 billion, the bribe must come from all corners of Korean economy – in other words, the harmful effects of bribery become much more pervasive. Simply put, the damages caused by Roh’s predecessor’s briberies are far greater than the damages caused by Roh’s bribery.
Also, it is important not to overstate the argument that the $6 million was much more damaging because Roh made his moral superiority the hallmark of his administration. Bribery is something that is not supposed to happen, regardless of whether or not a politician stated his intent not to accept bribery. Stating, “Hey, I never said I wouldn’t take bribes!” does not reduce the culpability of a bribe-taker. It is most certainly true that Roh was a liar when he repeated time and again that his administration was squeaky-clean. He deserved all the reputational damage that followed the investigation. But it was more than a little ironic that GNP, a party that received more than 13 times greater amount of bribe in 2002 in the form of literally truckloads of cash boxes, crowed in delight as if to say, “See? See?? You are no better than us!”
Having said that, it would be foolish to be blind to the many failures of the Roh presidency. He was generally a poor diplomat who did not always have a smooth relationship with the U.S., Korea’s most important ally. It is also fair to say that Korea’s economy grew during his term despite his economic policy rather than thanks to it, as Roh’s policies focused more on distribution rather than growth, e.g., the extremely harsh property tax on the homeowners on certain ritzy parts of Seoul.
But the greatest failure of Roh was that he created a toxic partisan environment in which he relied on the small number of ardent supporters push through his agenda while alienating the greater public. In such a situation, successes during Roh’s presidency became discounted, while failures during Roh’s presidency – however attenuated Roh’s involvement is – were magnified. Toward the end of presidency, it was a common half-serious joke that if your toilet backed up, it was Roh Moo-Hyun’s fault.
The creation of this environment is directly attributable to Roh’s faulty governing style. This style came about because of the simple truth – revolutionaries make lousy politicians. Roh Moo-Hyun was a revolutionary, and he failed to make the transition from being a revolutionary to being a mainstream politician.
The skill set required for being a successful revolutionary is completely different from the skill set required for being a successful politician. A revolutionary works outside the system. His power depends on denying any legitimacy of the opposition; indeed, a revolutionary must destroy the opposition, for they do not fit the new world order that the revolutionary seeks to achieve. On the other hand, a politician must begin by recognizing the legitimacy of the opposition – however unpalatable the opposition is – because negotiation with the opponent is essential in order to get anything done in a democracy.
In a sense, Roh was the most successful democratization revolutionary in the history of Korea. As such, Roh had the skill set to become the most successful revolutionary. His eloquent yet lashing style of speech was legendary; he was always happy to bypass the established lines of communication and speak directly to the people; he never compromised with his opposition, be they the military dictators or the former revolutionaries who co-opted with the dictators. These are the traits that made Roh into the president.
Yet what made Roh also unmade him. It was perhaps too much to ask for the most successful revolutionary to abandon the traits that made him successful. Roh never could make that transition, and the traits that once served as a tremendous advantage for Roh now served as a massive detriment. Roh continued to speak in an unrestrained manner, reducing his stature and providing fodder for the opposition. He relentlessly mocked and demonized the opposition, taking away GNP’s last remaining inclination to compromise. Whenever Roh sensed that he was in a pinch, he sought to communicate directly to the people, at one point going so far as to propose a referendum for his presidency. Instead of achieving the desired effect, these antics simply tired out the electorate. People living in democracy are busy – they elect leaders so that they don’t have to think about politics all the time. Roh’s actions ran directly counter to that fundamental (if less recognized) desire in democracy.
In essence, Roh’s governing style combined the worst elements of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, two of the worst American presidents since World War II. Jimmy Carter ran as an outsider like Roh, railing against the corruption of Richard Nixon presidency. Yet Carter, like Roh, never made the transition from outsider to insider, and his governance was rendered impotent because of that. George W. Bush thought winning an election was enough to push through a highly partisan agenda without consulting the opposition at all. In politics, how you do matters as much as what you do. The things that Roh did (and did not) do are no less significant than the achievements of any other president in Korean history. But it was how Roh did them that set himself up to be a failure.
Death of Roh: Korea’s Tragedy
Perhaps Korea was due for a president like Roh Moo-Hyun. Korea achieved democracy through a series of small revolutions. It would have been strange for Korea to not have a president who made his career as a revolutionary. But like a great individual can change the course of her life away from its most likely path, a great leader can change the course of her nation away from its most likely path as well. While grand historical narratives are always important, one must never lose sight of the fact that individuals matter in history. A great leader can transcend the reflection of the nation upon her, and instead make the nation a reflection of her. Roh Moo-Hyun failed to do this as the president. He was the reflection of Korea that unflinchingly fought for democracy. But during his presidency, he could not transcend that history of Korea.
However, Roh still had one more chance to transcend another aspect of Korea, for simply being who he is. Because of Korea’s checkered history of closed-door politics and corruption, there has never been a single Korean president who had a dignified post-presidency life. Syngman Rhee was exiled; Yoon Bo-Seon and Choi Gyu-Ha lost their presidency in military coup; Park Chung-Hee was assassinated; Chun Doo-Hwan and Roh Tae-Woo were tried and jailed for treason; Kim Young-Sam and Kim Dae-Jung could not escape the corruption scandals of his sons and confidants.
But not Roh Moo-Hyun. Indeed, Roh clearly showed the sign that a happy, dignified post-presidency life was completely within his reach. He simply went back to his native Bong-Ha village and became a village elder. He came out and waved at tourists who came to visit until the crowd became too large and posed a security threat. He still wrote on his website, but did not interfere with the day-to-day politics very much. He led small projects like beautifying the landscape around the village.
Indeed, this is exactly what Korea needed. Korea achieved democracy, but it has yet to have a full democratic narrative in which an ordinary person comes to power, serves his country with that power, and peacefully return to being ordinary after his term is over. Roh was not a very good president because he could not change who he was. But in post-presidency, Roh could have achieved the last leg of the democratic narrative by simply being exactly who he was. As Jimmy Carter exemplifies, while revolutionaries do not make a good president, they make a heck of an ex-president. Ex-presidents are once again outside of the political system, but this time with much dignity and symbolic authority. Because they lack an actual authority, their revolutionary excesses do not become implemented, while their revolutionary idealism serves as an inspiration. Roh was only 63. He had at least 10 good years in him to serve as a symbol of how Korean democracy managed to produce a president who had no political machine to his name, no insider clout and no college education. Over time, people would have forgotten how Roh conducted his business and come to focus on Roh’s achievements themselves. Roh only had to be himself – the revolutionary who steadfastly clung to the principles of transparency and democracy.
[Roh driving around his grandaughter in Bong-Ha village.]
But now we know that Roh was not being himself. He took bribes, however relatively small, just like the opposition that he denounced for being corrupt. For the record, I do not begrudge the investigation. The Roh supporters who blame the Lee administration for vigorously pursuing Roh’s corruption scandal are being shortsighted. Truth is always better than cover-up, and the truth was that Roh did something that he should not have done.
Truth also hurts. The loss of moral authority following the bribery scandal was a mortal wound for Roh not because it recast his achievements in a different light; it was because it eliminated the possibility of Roh achieving anything more in his life. That apparently was enough for Roh to decide that he did not have enough to live for. It was a tragic choice for both himself and for Korea. He lost his life, and Korea lost a valuable chance of having a full and complete democratic narrative.
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