Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Retrospective: Former President Roh Moo-Hyun, 1946-2009

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)]

Democracy began to take root in Korea, as the dictator Chun Doo-Hwan capitulated to the wave and waves of protest and promised to hold a free election after his term ended in 1987. As a major player in organizing those protests, Roh made his way to National Assembly (= Congress) in 1988. He gained further renown by indignantly throwing his name plaque at former president Chun during a National Assembly hearing concerning the Gwangju massacre in 1987 – Roh was the original shoe thrower before Muntadhar Al-Zaidi. Again, Roh’s star was rising in a way that was unimaginable had he merely stayed as a lawyer in Busan who earned a comfortable living.

[Roh objecting during a National Assembly hearing]

Even after President Chun stepped down, the following president was hardly any better: President Roh Tae-Woo was a right hand man to Chun, and won his election mostly because the democratization forces could not agree upon a single presidential candidate, splitting the anti-dictatorship votes among the three most prominent democratization leaders: Kim Young-Sam, Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Jong-Pil, known as the “three Kims”. Therefore, regardless of the election, Roh Tae-Woo had about as much legitimacy as Chun Doo-Hwan for most democratization activists. However, Kim Young-Sam and Kim Jong-Pil made a deal with the devil in 1990. They agreed to merge their parties with Roh Tae-Woo’s such that they can ensure their own road to the presidency after then-president Roh stepped down.

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? Yoon Bo-seon or Choe Gyu-Ha, men who never had the chops to defend Korea’s democracy and their own power against military coups? Chun Doo-Hwan and his right-hand man Roh Tae-Woo, who usurped power with military and were responsible for killing hundreds in Gwangju and many more? Kim Young-Sam, who oversaw the greatest economic calamity in the history of modern Korea?

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.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Very, very informative. Thanks. All I knew about him before is what my dad told me about him not going to college and passing the bar by studying from a hut.

  2. Thanks for the information. I knew some of it, and I admired Roh for his personal achievements . . . up until I learned of the 6 million and then of his suicide.

    My wife supported Roh when he ran for president (and our two young kids chanted his slogans for fun), but she was disappointed in some of his policies. I thought that his foreign policy was almost totally wrong and his economic policy unhelpful.

    By the way, I've been trying to uncover the source of the rumor that Roh was born in Jeollanamdo, that his father was a communist who killed several noncommunists in his home village, and that the family fled that village and moved to the village of Gimhae in Gyeongsangnamdo when Roh was two.

    I think that this rumor is just conspiratorial fears on the part of the Korean far right. Perhaps a blog entry on this would be informative.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  3. Full round of applause, thank you again for a well thought out history lesson!

  4. except for a short bit of writing - "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."...- you don't touch on the issue of his inability to face his nation and give an account of mea culpa. Sorry, but committing suicide is not a sign of a grand character, especially for a president. This in itself, for me, overweight any positive or negative aspect of his personal and political career. He was able to stand the applause but not the boos. May he rest in peace now.

    1. how stupid...we are not really sure if this suicide..there could be suspected foul play here..maybe someone killed him and make it out like a suicide.. someone wants him dead... after his death in 2009, the top prosecutor who persecute Roh resigned...

  5. You have missed. Humans have dispositions at birth. Happiness is not something we gain.

  6. ZERO - no explanation of childhood. Nothing. Why did he kill himself? Where is the childhood?

  7. 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.."

    what a bunch of crap propaganada...

  8. A wonderful retrospective - seriously, how long did it take to write? Well done.

  9. "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"

    wrong...that is from childhood

  10. As always, well done!

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  12. thanks for your retrospective.

    you really have a gift for giving a balanced and informed perspective that avoids the common biases of the korean and expat bloggers.

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  14. The Korean,

    I wrote what can be construed as a pretty harsh response on the Marmot, where I first saw this post. I append it here as well.

    In retrospect, it may be unnecessarily contentious, and for that I apologize. To paraphrase the kernel of one of your many illuminating past posts, too much salt and spices turns the diner away. I can only say that the unusually critical character nature of the response has more to do with my lack of time to refine it than any personal feelings:

    I am a huge fan of Ask A Korean!, and I find him perhaps the most thoughtful and eloquent Korean-American Blogger/poster I’ve yet encountered.

    Unfortunately, this particular piece lacks the Korean’s usual combination of depth and balance, to be charitable. I am not going to be able to do a thorough rebuttal due to both lack of time and dictates of prudence. So let me limit myself to a few egregious deficiencies.

    To begin with the most flagrant: The Korean almost exclusively concentrates on Roh’s attributes as a campaigner (which he vastly over-exaggerates) to explain his 2002 election victory. Too bad the truth is less tidy. Most critically, the Korean leaves out what is widely recognized as the critical reason for Roh’s victory: The emergence of the second major conservative candidate in Chung Mong-jun and his siphoning off of the conservative votes away from Lee Hoi-Chang. To make a long story short, Chung, the peripatetic Hyundai tycoon, initially split the conservative vote by running as a third-party candidate (as had Rhee In-je’s bolting the conservatives in 2002 as well) and was right behind Lee in second place for much of the election campaign. And when Chung realized that he was unlikely to beat Lee, he formed a proverbial 11th hour, ideologically mismatched alliance with Roh in the quixotic hope that he’d be Roh’s successor, clashing ideology be damned (which is again reminiscent of DJ’s more explicitly dishonest seduction of Kim Jong-pil in 1997).

    (I have written about this in the Asian Wall Street Journal []; here’s more in-depth look by Asia Society [].)

    The upshot: To leave out Chung’s critical role in Roh’s victory is like explaining Lincoln’s victory in 1860 without the fracturing of the Democratic Party. To be blunt: It’s an unconscionably bad history.

    Next, the Korean downplays the gravity of Roh’s transgressions by (among other questionable deflections) comparing it to Lee Hoi-chang’s GNP receiving political contributions/bribery in greater sum than Roh received. But can he not distinguish a difference between accepting bribes on behalf of a political party for organizational use and doing the same on behalf of oneself for personal enrichment? To me the difference is not of a degree, but of a kind.

    Third, the Korean continues (as he has in prior Blog posts) to portray the Gwangju tragedy as a black and white affair, with evil jackboots massacring innocent democracy activists. Again, the truth is a bit more complicated, though I will not beat a dead horse yet again. In the least, however, I would have expected a more nuanced articulation of the affair from someone of the Korean’s intellectual sophistication than something right out of the Leftist propaganda.

    Finally (and yes, I am not even going to touch the bizarre–from the abandoned parking lot [that is, not even from the left field!]—claims like that Roh was a top 3 president!), the Korean even commits a clear factual error, an unusual departure from his usual meticulousness. That is, John Chang (a truly funny piece of work) was not President but Prime Minister. The President of that particular regime was Yun Po-Sun. While I can see the Korean responding that Chang was the real power behind that regime, he ought to know as a lawyer to pay more painstaking attention to the explicit “letter” of what he writes, rather than expect his readers to divine its “spirit.”

  15. Very nice work. The lack of peaceful transitions in Korea is something that jumped out at me, too, the way that each president goes after his predecessors and that, as you wrote, there has yet to be a president to enjoy a long, dignified post-presidency. KDJ is popular down here, though I don't know how much of that goodwill is shared outside of Gwangju and the Jeollas.

    HJH: I mentioned his grandfather being from Gangjin county once, though I only heard it as a rumor from some coworkers, and only found confirmation on one website. I don't know how accurate it is considering the piece is pretty anti-Roh; here's the excerpt in question:
    * * *
    Surprisingly, President Roh Moo-hyun, from his childhood, started bearing hatred towards the society and assuming a defiant attitude towards the law as well. An interesting tale is still circulated that when Mr. Roh Moo-hyun was in an elementary school, he even cut one of his comrade's cute school bag with a box cutter because of his ill-natured character and jealousy.

    An autography containing such a story has been displayed in a web site run by the presidential office. Information further reveals that his grandfather was treated with a contempt by the neighbours in his native home town of Gangjin, Cholla province, Korea as the villagers found a fact that the old man had acted like a puppet during the Japanese colonial period. Mr. Roh's father was too severely isolated in the said home town because of his heretical behaviors in the village so that he later became a partisan.
    * * *
    That letter is mirrored on a bunch of different sites, so I can't find anything beyond that. I, too, would like to learn more about it, as well as what that charge says about the political climate.

  16. After a careful thought, I may have some insights into his sequence of thoughts that led to the suicide, albeit somewhat irrational. Again, I am not trying to JUSTIFY his act, rather trying to understand "rationally" and "relatively" the situation that RMH found himself in.
    Men and women have fought and killed over many centuries in the name of religion, greed, pride, love and for a place in history.
    What will we do to save our family?
    Here is probably what RMH was thinking:
    The bribery scandal put a significant amount of duress and public scrutiny on his family, and he knew that if he were to commit a suicide the prosecution would have drop the charges that were levied against him and his family. Since his suicide, the charges have been dropped. And now, we (Koreans) are left to grieve wondering where to collect the pieces.
    I believe his ultimate goal was to save his family from what would have been many years behind the bar for bribery, tax evasion, etc, not to save his pride. In the big scheme of things, he just didn’t want his family to suffer. In doing so, he took his own life. Goal Accomplished. Some media outlets have labeled his suicide as an "honorable death", while other have claimed as a "way out". Either way, I “subconsciously” understand his motive behind taking his own life.
    The Korean articulated the overall Korean sentiment of RMH in a fine manner. As I reflect on RMH's life, from the past to present, we can all agree collectively that he accomplished a lot in his lifetime. He was a son of peasant from one of the most impoverished province in Korea. And through determination and hard work, he became the President of ROK. He fought valiantly for democracy, freedom, and transparency in the government. Relatively speaking, RMH was probably the least corrupt President Korea has ever elected.
    RMH did accomplish a few things during his presidency: he developed, established, and implemented various immigration policies to reform Human Rights laws (especially for people from SE Asia; continued to support the KDJ’s Sun Shine Policy by actively engaging with the North ; and reducing the leverage of the of the federal prosecution office, of which was a major undertaking and reform in Korean politics.
    I believe he was the right President for Korea for that particular time. His suicide has caused serious, unintended consequences in Korea and throughout the region, i.e. (North Korea’s missile launch). However, Korea has made significant advancements towards a more-transparent, democratic nation. In the end, we will move forward with this tragedy, but won’t forget it. After all, that is one of the reasons why I am so proud of being Korean: “we let tragedy be one of our defining moments, but come out better and stronger”. If you know Koreans or Korean history, we can all agree my sentiment captures the Korean (people) fighting spirit very well.
    RIP RMH. Korea Hwaiting!!
    Regards, MC

  17. It's weird reading something by you in the first person.

    But all in all, great and informative post. I take my hats off to you.

  18. Well done, but the investigation on RMH scandal is halted. So, we will never know if he REALLY took the bribe. In addition, there are evidences that the money received were not bribes (and he denied the charge that he took the bribe), rather it was borrowed legitimately from the businessman. I mean think about it, prosecutors took almost six months on this and they got no real evidences.

  19. Meta Ace, minus any truth to the accusation of corruption, what motive would Roh have for committing suicide?

    Roh was not possessed of a weak character. He had persevered through very difficult circumstances in his life, far harder than those that any mere investigation might impose.

    Most plausible to me is the supposition that Roh was in some way materially touched by corruption and that he could not abide the moral failure of an ethical lapse after he had portrayed himself as incorruptible.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  20. Mr. Hodges says:

    "Meta Ace, minus any truth to the accusation of corruption, what motive would Roh have for committing suicide?"

    I think there is a chance that Roh may have been hiding something bigger than petty corruption (e.g., nefarious dealings with Pyongyang that he did not want to be disclosed), and he knew his suicide would pre-empt that inquiry.


    Dear Korean,

    thank you much for your detailed explanations about life and actions of ex-president Roh Moo-hyun, it is a very interesting portrait of korean life of last decades and its important political turning-points and events as well.

    You asked in your writing about what else could help and make a "winning" political campaign. Here from Italy I could suggest you to add also some important elements that could be fundamentals in the winning theory and practise.

    I mean the power of a good MARKETING of the person, just offering the person as a merchandise to be sold with the help of tricks of advertisement.

    They call it the "soul of business", "l'anima del commercio" here in Italy and our prime minister is knowing it very very extremely well.

    Here in Italy we can have the living example and proof of this idea, kind of living mathematical example. I mean the power of the "image" (most of cases coming from dreams, fantasies, hopes and digitally corrected images) that correct and direct the will and the desires of common people.

    The power of advertisement (with help of friendly TV and newspapers) and of expert marketing.

    Maybe Italy is a really special case.



    // 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. //

  22. Very comprehensive post. There is one thing I do take issue with - the fact that you put Roh's North Korea policy in the "win" column, glossing it over with "oh, but we do have to note that North Korea tested a nuke."

    That, in itself, demonstrates that the so-called sunshine policy may be good theoretically, but awfully difficult to execute in the real world. But of course nuclear weapons aren't all that define North Korea, even if you take into consideration the fact that even the Bush administration was buying into direct engagement by the end of Roh's term... you have the concentration camps, the hunger, the lack of any political freedoms that Roh himself strove to defend in his earlier days. All ignored for the sake of rappprochement.

    One has to wonder whether Roh's zeal for human rights was only limited to South Koreans, rather than to his northern brethren.

    No, I can't say that Roh's North Korea policy was a success. In fact, when you're basically at status quo ante 1994 + 6-8 nukes and a million ton shortfall of food a year, his NorK policy has to be chalked up as nothing but a dismal failure.

  23. Won Joon Choe, that would very materially increase Roh's degree of corruption, if it should prove true.

    Which raises the question as to why Kim Dae-jung hasn't suffered much for the huge sums that he gave to Kim Jong-il. I guess that a Nobel Prize is a great safety net . . . to mix a metaphor.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  24. Well written - on both sides. Must have taken you ages. Thanks.

  25. Jack,

    You find only "one thing" to take issue with here? Did you suddenly veer Left in the intervening years since I've known you? :)

  26. Mr. Hodges,

    If Roh were guilty of the type of conduct regarding Pyongyang that DJ were guilty of, then he'd be guilty of "treason" more than "corruption."

    Regarding your questions why DJ has not been called into account for his illegal dealings with Pyongyang, there are many explanations, in addition to the one you presented.

    I think the strongest reason is that he was followed by Roh, someone sympathetic to his political agenda. Moreover, DJ feigned illness while the story was at its hottest, so he got the sympathy break (which was also aided by his advanced age).

  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

  28. Won Joon Choe:

    But can he not distinguish a difference between accepting bribes on behalf of a political party for organizational use and doing the same on behalf of oneself for personal enrichment?

    It seems quite naive to think that briberies accepted by the GNP were used strictly for "organizational use," whatever that's supposed to mean. At any rate, I'm not sure how useful that particular comparison is because one could also argue that an election has far greater impact on the nation and its people than a few pieces of real estate for personal use, so the GNP's illegal spending on the former was worse.

    The upshot: To leave out Chung's critical role in Roh's victory is like explaining Lincoln's victory in 1860 without the fracturing of the Democratic Party. To be blunt: It's an unconscionably bad history.

    You left out the fact that Chung withdrew his support to Roh in the last minute.

  29. Everyone, thank you for your kind words.


    "Sorry, but committing suicide is not a sign of a grand character, especially for a president. This in itself, for me, overweight any positive or negative aspect of his personal and political career."

    Committing suicide is not a sign of a grand character, but neither is it such a great sin that wipes away all of a person achievements. Earnest Hemingway killed himself, but that doesn't make Old Man and the Sea any less of a classic, does it?

    scott, go write your own 10-page retrospective containing that information. The Korean even promises that he won't shit all over it like you did with the Korena's post.

    Chris in SK, it took about 5 days, a few hours after work each day.

    Wonmin Lee, the Korean thought it would be inappropriate to speak in third person there, especially because the third person thing is there for humor value. But that does not stop the Korean from commenting in third person.

    Meta Ace, as much as the Korean would like to believe that, it is no more than wishful thinking.

    Charlie B., the Korean did not put Roh's NK policy in the "win" column - it is under "push" column. If the Korean wished to gloss over the failures of Roh's NK policy, he simply would not have mentioned it -- like the way the Korean did not mention largely successful inter-Korea summit meeting or the six party talk framework. There will be another time to speak about the Sunshine Policy, but for it would suffice to say that the Korean is not nearly as down on it as many people are. Roh's NK policy was hardly a dismal failure -- it had its good and the bad, mostly resulting in a push.

  30. Choe BHSN,

    If that is the collection of the Korean's most egregious errors, the Korean is pretty happy with that. None of your points does any damage to any of the Korean's major theses. If we were locked in a summary judgment motion battle, the Korean would be winning in a walk.

    You have raised four points, and below is the Korean's rejoinder to each:

    1. You are correct, talking about Jang Myeon and not Yoon Bo-Seon was a factual error coming from carelessness. But please do not hold up the Korean's occupation to say the Korean's writing should be better. Even Michael Jordan loses to a middle-aged CEO if he is not working in game time shape. The Korean reserves his best writing for his job -- this blog is a hobby.

    2. The Korean is aware of the nuances of Gwangju, but really, when a nation's military indiscriminately opens fire on civilians, the clear evil of that action is quite enough to override any other consideration.

    3. On the bribery point, you are correct that the Korean cannot distinguish the "personal use" versus the "organizational purposes". The Korean would incorporate kdufos' answer by reference here. "Organizational purposes" surely include fattening the coffers of those persons involved in that organization, and if anything, the "organizational purpose" is much more insidious than "personal use".

    4. As to 2002 election, the Korean did not exclusively focus on Roh's campaign. Please read the third-to-last and second-to-last paragraphs of the 2002 election section again.

  31. Mr. Won Joon Choe, good point about treason . . . though I could imagine giving money to North Korea to 'corrupt' its system, e.g., bribing individuals to draw their support away from Kim Jong-il.

    But that would be good corruption.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  32. Wow, amazing post. Thank you for putting so much into it!

  33. ***I had to break-up my response, given my the comment section's character count limits***

    Ask a Korean,

    Thank you for a quick and comprehensive response. It was neither expected and nor necessary, given what I know personally of the hectic nature of life as a corporate lawyer in New York. Indeed, I ought to be honored that you devoted a separate response space only for me, among already over two dozen responses.

    As I feared, however, my rather hasty and perhaps rude response to your Roh eulogy seems to have unintentionally elicited some rancor on your part.

    I apologize again for this. Time is limited for we mortals, and I was unable to thoroughly pluck out all the unsightly bristles from my critique. For now let me confess I was born a polemicist, and it has taken too many years to internalize what Ben Franklin learned from reading Xenophon: That the guise of the “humble Enquirer & Doubter” is more efficacious than “abrupt Contradiction” and “positive Argumentation” in persuading men.

    In fact, this was one of the most indelible points you made in an earlier Blog post; and your cognizance of this basic rule of rhetoric at such an early age already puts you far ahead of me.

    Nonetheless, I wonder if you err in conceiving of our exchange purely eristically, as a quasi-court room contest, in your own words. Instead, I approach online conversations like this one dialectically, with the understanding that my interlocutor has the potential to teach me something. It also means, perhaps more critically, that I take pleasure in being refuted more than refuting, to invoke Socrates’ magic imagery in Plato’s Gorgias.

    Nor did your original presentation read like a lawyer’s brief, except perhaps in its one-sidedness. That is, it was more a pastiche of reminiscences than driven by a central argument with supporting evidence.

  34. Be that as it may be, here are my responses to your responses:

    1. The reference to your profession was strictly playful. In fact, much of what I write online is playful, though it does not seem to come across that way, perhaps partly due to the limitation of writing as a medium, and partly due to my own lack of eloquence.

    And, of course, I recognize that you cannot be expected to display the same rhetorical care in Blog writing that you would otherwise reserve for your on-the-job writing. In fact, this is one of the main reasons why I do not Blog, in spite of many encouragements and even entreaties. I simply do not have the time, and I am a slow (and prolix!) writer to boot.

    Nonetheless, given that you have made the bold decision to maintain a well-regarded Blog where you come off as an authority of sorts on Korea, I cannot minimize the importance of avoiding verifiable factual errors for your credibility’s sake. Try to avoid them at all costs.

    2. As I have said, I have already explicitly registered this objection before on your Blog. But once again: The issue in question here is not whether General Chun and his cohorts over-reacted or were unnecessarily brutal in Kwangju. I have never disputed that contention.

    Rather, the issue is my objection to your constant, insistent characterization of Kwangju protesters as peaceful “democracy” activists. Given, among other things, what I have heard from people who were actually there—including people whose word I am inclined to take at face value and who had an eagle’s eye position of the events—it was closer to a violent, mob insurrection. Indeed, it is difficult to characterize the whole Kim Dae-jung crowd as “democrats” in the Western or liberal sense. I once joked to someone that John Chang is the only genuine democrat Korea has ever had, and I was only half-kidding.

    But again, I do not want to beat this particular dead horse for multiple reasons, including that of prudence. Private conversations ought to remain precisely that: Private.

  35. 3. Here we have an issue of phronesis or practical judgment. I am not a Kantian but an Aristotelian or a Burkean. That is, in morally evaluating certain forbidden conduct, I look at the entirety of the circumstances, including the purpose of the forbidden conduct, rather than the conduct alone, in its pristine isolation. In human life, there are no geometric, precise, formulaic answers, and everything must instead be weighed on the balance. This is why I am a supporter of a robust, even extra-legal, conception of executive power, and why I am writing a book on it.

    To return to the issue of corruption: Let me illustrate my point by using actual historical examples. Would you consider the type of forced contribution that Park Chung-hee extracted from the chaebols equally culpable as extractions from the rich in the Philippines by Marcos, given that Park funneled it back to developing the economy, whereas Marcos used it to buy shoes for Imelda? If you think the two phenomena are the same, then we do indeed have a big, perhaps unbridgeable, gap between us on how to think about politics and human conduct.

    4. I hate to counsel someone to read carefully, given my own penchant not to do so online, but I said “almost exclusively,” not “exclusively.”

    Besides, your rejoinder does not address my main objection that you left out Chung’s candidacy, which is widely acknowledged as the main proximate cause for Roh’s election victory. To reiterate, my own example, to explain Roh’s victory in 2002 without a reference to Chung makes about as much sense as to explain Lincoln’s victory without a reference to the fracturing of the Democratic Party in 1860.

    One last point: I reiterate that I am painfully aware that one’s time is limited; in particular, I know first-hand that it is virtually impossible to produce Blog posts of scholarly quality when one is working as a full-time corporate lawyer. In that context, it is perhaps unfair to be so nit-picky with your Roh eulogy, especially when you consistently produce posts of the highest quality among the Korean-American or ex-pat Blog posts.

    Nonetheless, know also that that is the danger of entering the public arena. In so doing, you make yourself vulnerable to criticism, including perhaps criticism that is undeserved or at least excessive. Perhaps ultimately this is the main reason why I do not Blog. And your boldness is more admirable obviously than my own timidity.

  36. Mr. Hodges,

    I have not forgotten getting you some basic bibliography on Strauss and esoteric writing. But I have been backed up with real-life commitments. And given my penchant for thoroughness or prolixity, I thought it would be better to wait until I have a weekend or so to sit down and think through everything!

    Won Joon

  37. Wow! That was an awesome read! Honestly, his rags to riches story has made him a role model of mine. In fact, he was the reason I actually got into Korean politics at all, even before I started learning Korean.

    Like many of his die-hard supporters, I too, questioned some of his policies, however. But you helped fill in many of the gaps to his story. Thank you very much.

  38. WJC,

    I think the fellow AAK bloggers can collectively agree that is not the perfect platform to deliver your thoughts in what appears to be in legal writing format. After all, we are here to read and discuss social, political, and economical accounts of Korea without having to sing up or take Legal Writing 101 at a law school . In other words, I am simply dont have the time nor the patience to open up my dictionary every so often to fully understand and comprehend your points.

    Here is my closing statement: this is cyberspace, not a fucking court room. Please reserve the legal writing style to your job.



  39. Decorum, MC. There is no reason for the language. Everyone has his style, and there is no reason to argue over that.

  40. AskAKorean...

    Your point about "Earnest Hemingway killed himself, but that doesn't make Old Man and the Sea any less of a classic, does it?"... is correct, and I'm not denying his legacy, I'm saying that Roh's SUICIDE is now also part of his legacy, and as such he demonstrated a poor character and no respect to his family and his nation...
    and a weak personality too, being able to enjoy appllauses but not criticism as a public figure.

    You somehow, skipped his suicide part out of his legacy...

  41. Yos -

    He was able to stand the applause but not the boos.

    and a weak personality too, being able to enjoy appllauses but not criticism as a public figure.

    Roh already apologized to the public many times about the bribery charges and closed his personal website telling the Korean people to "abandon" him before he was even formally charged of anything. This is a guy who sucked up impeachment, countless accusations of incompetence and criticism from conservatives and the press as well as charges of corruption that turned out to be greatly exaggerated or downright false e.g. allegations of millions of dollars funneled to develop his personal estate at Bongha village, which turned out to be legitimate regional development funds that were instituted way before he even built his retirement home there and had nothing to do with his personal property. The conservatives compared his retirement home -- its value a pittance compared to those of past presidents -- to the Chinese emperor Qin's palace. Considering all the crap he sucked up before, during, and after his presidency, I wouldn't exactly attribute his suicide to a lack of will-power and inability to face and accept criticism, let alone disrespect toward his country.

  42. Mr. Won Joon Choe, don't worry. I've had no doubts that you'll get around to recommendations when you have time. I understand what being busy means.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  43. "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.)"

    That's ridiculous. That's like saying there were no major military defeats of the US in Vietnam -- although technically true, it misses the point entirely because the war was lost even though battles were won.

    I don't exclusively blame former President Roh for the DPRK's acquisition of nuclear weapons, nor do I think his presidency was a total failure, but I can scarcely understand why you would possibly cite former President Roh's policy towards North Korea as one of his "successes." By nearly every single metric -- human rights, normalization of international relations, global stability -- the situation in North Korea is worse off today than it was before former President Roh. The DPRK became a nuclear power -- for the first time in over half a century -- during Roh's presidency, and that fact significantly complicates international relations, jeopardizes exisiting security measures, and puts the entire peninsula (indeed, the world) at risk for conflict.

    While I understand your desire to paint former President Roh in a positive light, and while I agree with many of your positive (if revisionist) assessments of his presidency, on the issue of former President Roh's "success" with North Korea I firmly and resolutely disagree with you.

  44. chrisjshim - Nowhere does he call NK relations a "success." The paragraph where NK is mentioned starts with "Weighing against the foregoing positive points, Roh's presidency contained no major disaster." He also re-emphasizes this in his comments: the Korean did not put Roh's NK policy in the "win" column - it is under "push" column.

    If you didn't bother to read the post, why comment?

  45. WJC wrote
    "Rather, the issue is my objection to your constant, insistent characterization of Kwangju protesters as peaceful “democracy” activists. Given, among other things, what I have heard from people who were actually there—including people whose word I am inclined to take at face value and who had an eagle’s eye position of the events—it was closer to a violent, mob insurrection. "

    I am very curious what details you heard from the eagled eyed positioned person at that time. Who would be in such position at 1980? Military personnel? Chun's government official? I am very curious. Please disclose whatever information you have if i'm not asking too much.

    I know things that happened in Guangju 1980 was far from peaceful. People, sometime after 5/18, grabbed arms to fight off ROKA. What is your point here? What do you want to say about Guangju protesters? I don't understand. Please surface~ and clearly take side in a debate.

    For me, mob insurrection or peaceful democracy activists; these words are two different pointers to one entity and debate over these did not matter for me when looking at the Guangju 1980.
    I agree with AAK that nation's army killing people who they were supposed to protect puts off all other small talks whether true or not. What am I missing? Please guide me.

  46. Yos,

    I'm not denying his legacy, I'm saying that Roh's SUICIDE is now also part of his legacy, and as such he demonstrated a poor character and no respect to his family and his nation

    Well, when you said earlier that "This in itself, for me, overweight [sic] any positive or negative aspect of his personal and political career[,]" it sure as heck sounds like you are denying Roh's legacy because he killed himself.

    But what you are trying to say is duly noted. Personally, the manner of Roh's death does not factor into the Korean's thoughts on Roh at all. The Korean's assessment of Roh would not change for better or worse if Roh was hit by a car. To each his own.


    Disagreement is fine. But just for the sake of robust discussion, a few more rejoinders (other than what kdufos said):

    1. it misses the point entirely because the war was lost even though battles were won.

    That depends on defining what is a battle, and what is a war; in other words, what is the priority and what is secondary?

    Again, there will be another time to discuss the merits of Kim Dae-Jung/Roh Moo-Hyun line of approach to North Korea. But to give a quick hitter, the Korean's view is that the overriding priority is keeping peace in Korea. Everything else is secondary. Was there peace in Korea during Roh presidency? Yes. Was there ever a serious threat that NK would attack SK? No. Then Roh's NK policy is at least a push. (Again, the Korean does not think it was success.)

    If you wish to see the Korean fully defending the Sunshine Policy, please email. Other people have been waiting for more than a year for their questions to be answered.

    2. The Korean has no desire to paint Roh in a positive light -- the Korean strove to give a balanced account while being faithful to the Korean's personal opinion. Given the fact that: (1) the overwhelming response to this post has been praise and gratitude, and that; (2) the Korean has been receiving criticisms from both sides of pro- and anti-Roh crowd, he would say he did a decent job at it.

  47. Dear American Yokel,

    I would be the first to concede my limitations as a prose stylist. I am certainly not even half the writer that “Ask a Korean!” is.

    Nonetheless, you have committed a grave offense against the good men of the bar by calling my comments here something out of “Legal Writing 101.” Sure, you can fault my style for being too “academic,” “pompous,” “long-winded,” and “boring.” But my style hardly epitomizes legal writing. Lawyers are, first and foremost, trained to write concisely, and I find that particular virtue impossible to practice!

    You may also be right that “Ask A Korean!” is not the right forum to air my views. Certainly, I seem to have at least misjudged the maturity of the readers of this Blog, as I did not expect the “f”-word hurled at my direction.

    Yet, I also think that you speak out of place in presuming to be the gatekeeper of this Blog. First, you are not its owner; Ask a Korean! is. Second, I know you cannot please everyone, and it is sufficient if there are other readers of this Blog who may be more open to knowledgeable views that may counterpoise, supplement, and at times correct that of its owner.

  48. immerever,

    I will shoot you a quick e-mail in the next few minutes.

    But I am afraid even in private correspondence I will have to be both succinct and vague. The bottom line is that I do not know who you are, and I've learned too late, alas!, that prudence is perhaps the greatest social virtue.

    As for your implication that I am "hiding" from criticisms or further inquiries, two things.

    First, as I have already said several times, one's time is limited. As a result, I do not ordinarily engage in protracted Blog comment wars, as they waste valuable time without bringing any further enlightenment. Once an initial point is made, there is little that is new thereafter. I have made an effort to explain myself with more care than usual here, only because 1) I respect Ask a Korean! more than your run-of-the-mill online trolls, and 2) my initial response was possibly unduly harsh and needed to be moderated.

    Second, I have to deal with a surgery of a close friend, and I doubt I won't be around much the next few days either.

  49. Choe BHSN,

    The bad part about being generally polite is that ill-will is presumed when the Korean sounds terse, when truly he is simply busy and did not put in as much time as he should, as you mentioned. The Korean accepts your apology, and would offer his for sounding terse.

    Having said that, the Korean is enjoying this discussion quite a bit -- let us carry on.

    1. Your point that the Korean, as the keeper of a well-regarded AAK!, must be careful with facts is completely valid. Trust the Korean - no one is more embarrassed than he is.

    But in the same token, the Korean thinks you cannot retreat by simply saying "I was being playful." Surely you would agree that by leaving a written trail, you have entered the public arena - albeit not as visibly as the Korean as a proprietor of a blog.

    2. As to Gwangju, our political differences inform our views on the very chaotic 10 days 29 years ago. As you do, the Korean wishes to be vague on this topic, but it would suffice to say that the Korean also has heard a few personal accounts regarding that time, from both sides of the conflict.

    3. As moral judgment on bribes, the Korean thinks we are pretty similar on the level of principles. And the example of Park Chung-Hee is far too complicated to discuss here. But in practice, the Korean fails to see how Chun's $1 billion slush fund or even GNP's $80 million "funneled back to developing the economy" or serve any other quasi-legitimate purpose.

    4. The Korean really wishes he fleshed this point fully. What the original rejoinder should have said was this: as the Korean said in the post, tactics do not win elections, but delivering what people want do. Roh won because he delivered what Korean people wanted in an excellent fashion. Everything else -- armored car incident, Kim Dae-Eop, and yes, even Chung Mong-Joon -- is secondary to that. Perhaps a passing mention of Roh-and-Chung's alliance-that-wasn't may have been warranted, but the Korean disagrees that the omission was not an "unconscionably bad history."

    Additionally, best of luck for your friend. Speaking of bad things to friends, the Korean's very good friend has passed away in an accident this week, and he has to attend the memorial service this weekend. But threads at AAK! tend to live long, so we can pick it back up whenever you'd like.

  50. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  51. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  52. For, your comment is deleted because it contains such baseless lies not even worth discussing. Please go away.

  53. Thank you Mr. Choe and the Korean.
    You both have inspired me not to be a lawyer, once it for all.
    When I write my autobiography, you and this moment will be noted.

  54. I for one like the exchange between AAK and WJC. It's a rarity on the K-blogosphere in which controversial topics are discussed without having the usual mudslinging. But I must admit when a comment gets too long I tend to skip it. Good job guys, keep it up.

    Anyway would it be too much to ask for a "Recent Comments" section placed near the top-right hand side? Perhaps right below "Popular Questions"?

  55. Actually, the Korean doesn't know how to do that. He would appreciate input from those who are more knowledgeable with Blogger. The Korean would like to have a window for "most read posts this week" or "most emailed posts this week", something to that effect.

  56. I was wondering about the "recent comments" suggestion also. Apparently there is a way.

  57. AAK,

    you wrote "The Korean's assessment of Roh would not change for better or worse if Roh was hit by a car. To each his own."...
    Frankly, I expected a better argument from you

    Being hit by a car is an outside intervention in one's life. Committing suicide is different - it's a personal decision and it involves character.

  58. Yos,

    The Korean agrees that suicide involves character. The Korean's point is that at the end of the day, the implication of suicide on character is not important enough merit a discussion. Thomas Jefferson raped his female slave. John F. Kennedy was addicted to methamphetamine. But how often do you hear people talking about those character flaws (indeed, bordering on criminal tendencies) when people assess their presidency?

    Again, if you want to elevate the significance of Roh's character flaw revealed by his suicide in discussing his life, that's fine. To each his own. But the Korean believes that his approach is the right one.

  59. AaK

    There is still a major point that you're missing. I'm not interested in Roh's character as a private person. And I'm not looking to criticize his personal flaws, or other presidents' personal flaws (American or other).

    This is the major point: Roh was a PUBLIC personality and as such he was engaged in a PUBLIC discussion. Committing suicide instead of engaging in a PUBLIC discussion, in Roh's case, is setting a bad, wrong and awful example for the people of this country on every possible level of public life. That's my major point. If he were not a politician I would not have given a damn schnitz about his actions... on the contrary, I might have even admired his choice.

  60. Yos,

    The Korean already made clear his stance on Roh's bribery scandal. The Korean thinks that ultimately, it is not something that really affects Roh's legacy. So even if the suicide cut off the dialogue in the bribery investigation (a dubious proposition, given that Roh already was summoned and investigated and publicly issued his apology,) the Korean does not care because it is not something that truly matters. If you still disagree, feel free to go write your own retrospective.

  61. absolutely beautifully written. i always enjoy your humorous insights, but this serious tome about Roh is stunning. thank you for this.

    well done. keep up the good work.

  62. In 1975, about 4, 000 applied for the exam, and 60 passed the bar exam. Even in 1980s, about 300 could avoid the deadline. I asked for references to my friend, but he rejected saying "아휴, 귀찮아.". Sorry for not giving you references, but believe me. My friend is a reliable person in its word. My pal said he looked it up at 사개추위 site. Search the site for correct data.

    ※ Suicide or murder? People distrust what the police addressed about his death.

  63. "People living in democracy are busy – they elect leaders so that they don’t have to think about politics all the time."

    That was a very astute observation! I enjoyed this article (and the comments) very much. AAK! is an enjoyable read and a great resource for us non-Koreans married to Koreans.

  64. While still reading this well written retrospective on modern Korean political history, I wanted to post a similarity with the present day President of the United States and his 2008 campaign brilliance. It seems to me that he preceded Obama in his campaign skills. Or maybe Obama emulated him with the five buck online contribution that practically wiped Hillary's campaign coffers. And, Obama the revolutionary learned to become a politician. Maybe that's why he might win another election in 2012 while angering many of his revolutionary supporters (including me.)

  65. In this post you say Lee's investigations of Roh were justified; in your "President Power Ranking" post you say Lee was harassing Roh with groundless investigations. So what side do you really stand by?

  66. Thx for the post. I admire the former president. I still dont think he killed himself hope the truth about his death would revealed in the future.

  67. Thx for the post. I admire the former president. I still dont think he killed himself hope the truth about his death would revealed in the future.

    1. i agree.. there could be suspected foul play here...


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