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President Roh Moo-Hyun [2003-2008]

President Roh Moo-Hyun  [2003-2008]Roh Moo-Hyun, the president of the Republic of Korea from 25 February 2003 to 25 February 2008, was a symbol for the so-called "386" generation - a younger political class that was born in the 60s, entered university in the 80s, and were in their 30s when he was president. They are the generation that often associates themselves with the struggle for morality in South Korean politics.

Roh was a liberal from South Korea's ruling Millennium Democratic Party, rose to prominence as a human rights lawyer defending students accused of treason during South Korea's military rule in the 1980's. The youngest son of peasants from the country's southeast, the 56-year-old Mr. Roh had no formal education beyond high school. He chose law as his path out of poverty and studied alone at night to pass the bar exam. In the 1980s, he built a reputation as a lawyer whose cases challenged the authority of then-military dictator Chun Doo-hwan. In 1987, Mr. Roh was arrested and suspended from his law practice on charges of supporting a strike by workers at a shipyard. Mr. Roh continued his defense of the oppressed as a pro-democracy politician elected to the National Assembly from Busan in 1988. As a novice lawmaker, he made headlines with his participation on a legislative panel looking into the Chun government's past offenses.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Roh signed a petition demanding an end to U.S. military presence in South Korea, but has since softened his position. He now says he wants to revise the law governing the 37,000 U.S. troops in his country to give Seoul more jurisdiction over them. Mr. Roh supported President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of engaging communist North Korea - despite assertions by the United States that Pyongyang had a nuclear weapons program. Mr. Roh said he will be aggressive in reconciling with North Korea and will strive for a more equal relationship between South Korea and the United States -- its closest ally.

Roh Moo-hyun was born on August 6, 1946, in a small farming village in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do, a province on the southeast coast. His father was Roh Pan-sock, a poor farmer, and his mother, Lee Soon-rae. He had an elder brother and two elder sisters. Mr. Roh lived in this village until he graduated from Jinyeong Middle School.

Despite the fact that his family was poor, he had always had a positive outlook. His family helped him to appreciate the traditional values of honesty, hard work and self-reliance. An episode from his elementary school years shows his strong personality. He felt he was the rightful first place winner in the school's calligraphy contest. However, the first place was awarded to another student whose family was well to do. At the award ceremony, Roh refused to take the second place award from his teacher because he thought he had been treated unfairly. His sense of fairness, taking shape in his formative years, would play an important role in adult life.

After graduating from Jinyeong Middle School, Roh was accepted at Busan Commercial High School with a full scholarship. Upon graduation in 1966, he worked at a small company for a short while but was disappointed with the working conditions. He made a decision to study for the national bar examination to become a lawyer as a means of securing a comfortable life

In 1968, he began his military duty at Eulji Military Base, one of the front-line bases, and completed his duty in May 1971 as a corporal. In January 1973, he married his village sweetheart, Kwon Yang-suk.

Roh had harbored a dream of studying for the national bar examination since he was a child. Passing the bar examination was considered to be the top achievement in Korea ensuring a life of wealth, honor, and influence in the society. Since high school graduates were not eligible to take this examination at the time, he returned home and embarked on realizing this dream by preparing for a qualification examination to take the bar examination; he passed this exam in October 1966.

After completing military duty, he continued to study and successfully passed the national bar examination in 1975. Upon completion of the mandatory, two-year training program at the Judicial Research and Training Institute, he became a district court judge for the city of Daejeon in 1977 and served in that position for eight months. He resigned from that position when he discovered that judges were not able to maintain judicial independence under the authoritarian military-influenced Administration. In 1978, he resigned his judgeship and opened his own law office.

The Chun Doo-hwan Administration, which came to power following the brutal suppression of the May 1980 Gwangju Pro-Democracy Uprising,instituted a systematic program of eliminating pro-democracy and anti-government elements among university students. For example, university students on different campuses in the Seoul area were arrested on trumped-up charges of anti-state activities.

One such case involving trumped-up charges against students in Busan was simply called the "Burim Incident," after the name of a student book club. The students were charged with studying leftist theories. Mr. Roh came to defend a student involved in the case by chance, stepping in for another lawyer who was in trouble with the government authorities because of his "ideological orientation." Roh was recommended, because it was thought that the government could not find any ideological fault with him. But the experience was an eye-opener, and it changed his life. He witnessed torture and met mothers whose sons had disappeared. From then on he quickly became a human rights lawyer defending pro-democracy and labor rights activists throughout the period of the infamous Fifth Republic, 1980-1988.

In 1984, Roh became the director of the Research Center for Environmental Pollution, and in 1985, he organized the Busan Citizens' Committee for Democracy with Father Song Gi-in. At about the same time, Roh opened the Legal Counseling Office for Labor. By 1986, his work as a lawyer practically ceased and instead he focused most of his activities on the pro-democracy movement. He became one of the leaders of the "June Struggle," demonstrations in the spring of 1987, which called for a Constitutional revision to allow for direct presidential elections.

They culminated in June with the Government giving in to opposition demands. In September of the same year, Roh was arrested in connection with the funeral of Lee Seok-gyu. Lee, a member of the Daewoo Shipping Workers Union, was killed during a union strike, when he was hit by a tear-gas cannister released by the police. Roh and other well-known leaders of the pro-democracy movement were called to support the workers, and Mr. Roh represented the Union in the wage and compensation settlement negotiations with the company.

He was arrested on charges of "third-party intervention" and "interruption of the funeral" but was released after 23 days because of insufficient grounds for detention.

In 1988, the Reunification Democratic Party(RDP), an opposition party headed by Kim Young-sam, nominated Roh to run for the National Assembly from the Eastern District of Busan. Defeating a strong ruling party candidate, Roh was elected to the 13th National Assembly. As a new National Assemblyman, he played an active role as a member of the Labor Committee, becoming known as one of the 'Three Musketeers of the Labor Committee' with Lee Hae-chan and Lee Sang-soo.

During the special parliamentary hearing on the corruption charges against the top government officials of the Fifth Republic, Roh, then a novice lawmaker, instantly became a national hero with his well-organized and penetrating questions. While few if any assemblymen dared to provoke such prominent figures as Chung Ju-yung, the founder of the Hyundai conglomerate, and Chang Se-dong,the intelligence chief under Former Presidents Chun Doo-hwan,Roh Moo-hyun stood out both

Roh Moo-hyun stood out both in his demeanor and in his forthright eloquence. The hearing laid the basis for Roh to become a politician on a national scale; he was remembered by many Koreans as the "star lawmaker" from this period.

In January 1990, Roh opposed the politically motivated three-party merger between the ruling and two opposition parties. Through this merger Kim Young-sam, a long-time symbol of anti-dictatorship and pro-democracy movement in Korea, and Kim Jong-pil, a symbol of the dictatorial Yushin Constitution, became partners in a coalition government with the ruling party headed by Roh Tae-woo, a former general and successor to Chun Doo-hwan of the Fifth Republic. The ruling party needed the merger to secure a majority in the National Assembly.

Roh Moo-hyun opposed the merger citing it as an act of betrayal against the interests of the public which desperately wanted a new, democratic regime. Roh went his separate way, forming a "mini-Democratic Party" with National Assemblyman Kim Jung-gil, the only other Assemblyman left from their previous party. He then proceeded with his idea of uniting the opposition forces, including the Shinmindang (New Democratic Party) headed by Kim Dae-jung. In September 1991, the two parties were merged to form the United Democratic Party (UDP), and Roh became its first spokesperson.

In March 1992, Roh ran again for the National Assembly seat for the Eastern District of Busan. He ran on the ticket of the newly formed United Democratic Party (UDP) headed by Kim Dae-jung. In other words, Roh ran in the heart of the Southeast on the ticket of a party that drew most its support from the Southwest, hoping to triumph over the deepening rivalries between the two regions. Unfortunately, he could not overcome the regional antagonism fueled by his opponent and this time he was defeated by the same candidate of the ruling coalition party that he had defeated previously. Roh went on to serve as an election campaign leader for presidential candidate Kim Dae-jung in late 1992, and in March of the following year, he became the youngest member of the UDP supreme council.

In 1993, Roh established the Research Center for Local Autonomy to promote local autonomy as a means to promote democracy in Korea. The Center is credited with having produced key players for local governments since the system was introduced in Korea. Today, the center has a new name, the Institute of Local Government Management.

On June 27, 1995, Roh ran in the first local election for Mayor of Busan, but he was defeated by Mun Jeong-soo of the ruling Democratic Liberal Party. Opinion polls taken prior to the election had indicated that Roh would have had a chance of winning the gubernatorial race in Gyeonggi Province. He was also invited to be a running mate of a leading candidate in the mayoral race in Seoul. However, he chose to run for mayor of Busan because he wanted to break the corrosive regional politics that divided the nation between the rival southwestern and southeastern regions.

Twice in a row, Roh ran for office in Busan in the southeast as the candidate of the UDP that had its power base in the southwest. It was a political risk no politician had ever attempted to take before or since, except by Mr. Roh himself again in 2000. Eradicating the deeply-rooted regionalism in Korean politics has since become one of the major goals in his political life.

When the National Congress for New Politics (NCNP) was inaugurated in 1995, Roh stayed in the UDP. In 1996, during the 15th General Election, he was the UDP candidate for the National Assembly seat from the Jongno District in Seoul but lost. After his defeat, he joined the Congress for the Promotion of National Alliance (CPNA). In 1997, the CPNA leadership became divided in the face of the upcoming presidential election. In November, Roh decided to join the NCNP with Kim Won-gi and Kim Jung-gil, to coalesce support for Kim Dae-jung in the presidential race. As part of the presidential election campaign, Roh appeared on TV programs to deliver speeches in support of candidate Kim Dae-jung, receiving the highest TV viewing ratings.

In July 1998, a parliamentary by-election was held in the Jongno District in Seoul. Roh ran for the seat on the NCNP ticket and won. This time, he served on the Education Committee. During this time, Roh also acquired valuable experience as an arbitrator in a number of labor-management disputes. For example, he played a significant role in resolving the large-scale labor strike led by Hyundai Heavy Industries Workers Union in August 1998. In 1999, he also played a major role in persuading lawmakers, the labor union and civic organizations to form a consensus on selling Samsung Motors to Renault.

Lee Hoi-chang of the Grand National Party (GNP) began to mobilize rallies in the southeastern region in early 1999 resorting to divisive regional politics as a preview to the forthcoming general election. Roh could have ignored this and won the National Assembly seat for a second term by running in the Jongno District in Seoul. Instead, he chose to challenge the GNP politics of regionalism and returned to Busan as a candidate for the party from the southwest. He lost the election in Busan, for the third time, but won the hearts of many people around the country as he stood for principles and integrity.

Roh's defeat in the April 2000 election in Busan was a "blessing in disguise." The news of his defeat prompted his supporters nationwide to form NOSAMO (The "We Love Roh Moo-hyun Club"), the first political fan club in Korea. His supporters were inspired by the courage and commitment shown in his struggle against regionalism.

In August 2000, Roh was appointed Minster of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. Serving as Minister, he gained extensive experience in policy-making and government affairs. During his tenure, Roh also gained a reputation for his distinctly democratic leadership style and his fresh and dynamic attitude.

For the 2002 presidential elections, the MDP introduced a national primary election system for the first time in Korea. The MDP primaries began on March 9, 2002 on Jeju Island. At the beginning, there were seven persons running and Roh was by no means the front-runner. Only one of some 120 MDP Members of the National Assembly at the time openly supported Roh as the primary candidate. On April 27th, the day of the last primary election, in Seoul, Roh was officially confirmed as the MDP Presidential candidate. To vote in the primary elections, 70,000 persons had been selected from more than 2 million party and non-party applicants.

Few had expected Roh's nomination as the presidential candidate. His victory was a victory not only for the candidate himself or his party but also for the national primary election system. Following his nomination, he also received about 65 percent support in opinion polls, far ahead of the leading opposition party candidate, Lee Hoi-chang.

As a series of corruption scandals involving President Kim Dae-jung's sons, relatives and his appointed officials outraged the public in the months following the primaries, Roh's popularity dipped to a low point. His presidential candidacy appeared to be collapsing rapidly. Some members of the MDP withdrew their party membership and joined Lee Hoi-chang's party or the National Alliance 21, which had been newly formed by Mr. Chung Mong-joon and his supporters for his presidential bid. Other MDP defectors formed an ad hoc committee to press Roh to yield his candidacy in favor of Chung, whose popularity as a prospective presidential candidate had skyrocketed. His rise in the polls was attributable to a number of factors, one of which was his role as a co-chair of the World Cup Organizing Committee, which managed the highly successful world soccer competition.

Time and again, Roh had to make a difficult political decision; to listen to his closest supporters and hold on to his MDP presidential candidacy or to compete against Chung for a unified candidacy. There seemed to be only a slim chance for his victory in this new round of competition if the polls were any indication of the outcome.

After much soul-searching, Roh decided to abide by the voters' demands for a single presidential candidacy against Lee Hoi-chang. His aides and their counterparts worked out a selection process under which Roh and Chung would engage in a televised debate, to be followed by opinion polls, the result of which would determine the single candidate.

At midnight on November 25, 2002, Roh's victory was announced to the nation. Chung Mong-joon conceded with grace and pledged to do his best to help elect Roh as the next president of Korea. Thus, a new chapter in the history of Korean politics was written. Two prospective presidential candidates had accepted the demand of the people to unify for a single candidate and abide by the results of the selection process in a spirit of fairness.

Finally, Roh Moo-hyun, a person with a humble family origin, struggling all his life to uphold the rights of individuals, emerged as a presidential candidate overcoming all sorts of political predicaments. Truly, his candidacy represents a victory for the common people in every region of the nation and in all walks of life that he had long aspired to serve as president. In a hard-fought battle culminating in the presidential election on December 19, 2002, Roh won a narrow but convincing victory, despite Chung's last minute defection.

South Korean ruling party candidate Roh Moo-hyun won a contest dominated by concerns about North Korea. Mr. Roh has pledged to maintain the current government's policy of engaging communist North Korea, despite recent revelations about its nuclear program. In one of the tightest presidential races in South Korea's history, younger voters triumphed over the older generation. Their choice, liberal ruling party candidate Roh Moo-hyun won the election. Mr. Roh, who supports engagement with North Korea, beat conservative opposition candidate Lee Hoi-chang by a slim margin.

The 56-year-old labor lawyer from a poor farming family, and the patrician, 67-year-old Mr. Lee were virtually tied in surveys before voting started, after a campaign dominated by the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the status of U.S .troops in the South. The race was a battle of the generations, with young voters supporting Mr. Roh and their parents turning out for Mr. Lee. It is the Korean decision to transfer power from the older generation and Cold War era to the post-Cold War generation and the younger generation.

Roh favored engagement with the North, saying economic exchanges and dialogue could encourage the Stalinist nation to abandon its militaristic tendencies and Cold War rhetoric. He disagreed with the Bush administration's effort to isolate Pyongyang. Mr. Roh has said repeatedly that as president, he would ask for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Ties with the U.S. were the other key election issue. Anti-American protests snowballed after a military court acquitted two U.S. servicemen whose armored vehicle ran over and killed two South Korean schoolgirls.

Mr. Roh occupied the presidential Blue House in Seoul from 2003 to 2008, having won his election mainly on a platform of running a clean government. Former Presidents Chun Do-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were brought before prosecutors in 1995, and sent to prison for accepting hundreds of millions of dollars from private business interests to fund political campaigns. They were later pardoned.

In April 2004 a resolution to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun passed overwhelmingly in the National Assembly with the two opposition parties, the Grand National Party and the Millennium Democratic Party, voting for the resolution. Roh's party, the Uri Party, abstained. The issue was over Roh's public endorsement of the Uri Party before the permitted 17 days ahead of the 15 April elections, and his refusal to apologize. The legality of the impeachment was taken to the court. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, Goh Kun, was acting President from 12 March 2004 to 14 May 2004, when President Roh Moo-hyun was restored to office.

"Decent, competent, and balanced" were the most common descriptions of Koh Gun. Also widely used are "dull" and "grey." A career diplomat with an uncanny ability to build consensus, Koh Gun has held all the key positions in the South Korean government, even the top one. In fact, Koh is fondly remembered for his tenure as acting President in 2004, when his non-confrontational manner smoothed the way for a quiet few months in the wake of the divisive political confrontation on Roh's impeachment.

While Roh's popularity had fallen below 30%, some 75% of the South Korean electorate opposed his impeachment. Since seizing control of the Assembly in parliamentary elections in 2004, the Uri Party failed to win a single seat in three successive by-elections. In April 2005 by-elections, the GNP won five of six seats, in October, 2005, the GNP swept the four seats and finally 26 July 2006 the Uri Party suffered another humiliating defeat as they failed to come close in any of the four races. Coupled with polling results that showed as low as 15 percent approval rating for the president, the Uri Party's woes continued to deepen.

By 2004 South Korean officials detained a former presidential aide in a widening multi-million dollar corruption scandal involving both major parties. Prosecutors also targetted seven opposition politicians and the chairman of the country's third largest conglomerate. President Roh Moo-hyun's former campaign chief was splashed across television screens as he was arrested and led away under the glare of dozens of cameras. Chyung Dai-chul, who denied any wrongdoing, is in custody, accused of taking more than a half million dollars in bribes from construction companies.

He was by no means the only high-profile official under investigation or detained for illegally funding the 2002 presidential campaign. The opposition has not escaped scrutiny. Son Kil-seung, head of the huge SK conglomerate, is accused of giving the opposition Grand National Party more than $8 million in illegal contributions. Seven opposition lawmakers were also targeted in the probe, prompting the Grand National Party to say the government investigation was biased. Choe Byung-yul, GNP chairman, says the probe is politically motivated and prosecutors were trying to influence the upcoming April parliamentary elections.

The man President Roh defeated in 2002, the GNP's Lee Hoi-chang, has admitted to taking $43 million in illegal campaign contributions and says he is ready to go to prison. Mr. Roh, who denied any personal wrongdoing, has said he would resign if the probe proves his party took more than a tenth of what was accepted by the opposition.

By late 2008 Mr. Roh and members of his family were under investigation for allegedly receiving millions of dollars in bribes from a business executive. Mr. Roh testified for more than 10 hours in April 2009 in the corruption investigation. He was questioned about allegations that he took more than $6 million in bribes from a businessman while in office. He admitted that his wife took an unspecified amount of money as a loan to pay off debts, but denied that he was aware of it in advance. The former president admitted his wife took about $1 million from Park Yeon-cha, head of a shoe company. However, he describes that money as a loan. Mr. Roh's son and a nephew-in-law are believed to have accepted about $5 million from Park. Park was arrested in 2008 for tax evasion and graft.

Prosecutors were giving serious consideration to issuing a warrant for the former president's arrest. He expressed shame and apologized publicly to South Korean citizens. The scandal was a painful irony for Mr. Roh, who won election in 2002 on a campaign of clean and transparent government.

Roh Moo-hyun died in an apparent suicide 23 May 2009. Mr. Roh fell to his death from a mountain cliff. The former president was facing an intense corruption investigation. A lawyer for Mr. Roh's family says the former head of state left a brief note about his mental anguish Saturday before taking his own life. Moon Jae-in, a former aide, says Mr. Roh apparently jumped from a mountain cliff during an early morning hike. He died of injuries soon thereafter. In his apparent suicide note, Mr. Roh requested he be cremated and be remembered with a small stone monument in his rural home village. The note says the former president could no longer even concentrate on reading a book, and added, "don't blame me, life and death are the same."

Roh Moo-hyun's suicide acame in the middle of a corruption probe involving his wife, children, and several close aides was a shock to the Korean people, and many held the Lee Myung-bak Administration responsible for his death by perpetrating what they claimed was a politically-motivated investigation.

South Korea's emotional farewell to former President Roh Moo-hyun brought much of the country together. South Korea did not declare a formal day off from work for Mr. Roh's funeral, or the public events that took place afterward. Nonetheless, many South Koreans were either given the time off, or took it on their own - as evidenced by tens of thousands of people of all ages who poured into a downtown thoroughfare. At public memorials all this week, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans were handed white chrysanthemums to place on altars honoring Mr. Roh.

Many South Koreans accused incumbent President Lee Myung-bak of backing the prosecutors who hounded Mr. Roh - and they say the current president has a degree of responsibility for Mr. Roh's fate. The basic failing of President Roh was his inability to bring the South Korean people together, Koh said. Roh was a divisive politician. In Roh's thinking either one was pro-American or anti-American; pro-or-anti North Korea; the same with globalization.

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Page last modified: 21-11-2015 18:42:19 ZULU