Roh Tae Woo
As industrialization had been increasing the size of the working class since the 1960s, the number of employees joining unions had also steadily increased. The Korean government strongly suppressed the labor movement in the early 1980s, but the working class continually resisted and grew stronger through political struggle. In addition to the labor movement, civic groups, including intellectuals, students, and democratic leaders, mobilized their power resources and led public calls for a constitutional amendment allowing for direct presidential elections; they also favored the dissolution of the military government, which became their slogan in the spring of 1987.
The new military power which brutally suppressed the democratization movement of May 18th drafted a new constitution and dissolved the National Assembly to elect Chun Doo-Hwan as the new president through the indirect voting system. However, the authoritative rule of Chun’s government again faced strong resistance from the people.
When a full-scale democratization protest started in June, 1987, the government accepted the people’s demand for democratization (June 29th Declaration) and revised the constitution to permit a direct election of the president. Based on the revised constitution, a presidential election was held and despite the people’s desire for a civilian president, the rift within the opposition party enabled another military man, Roh Tae-woo to be elected as the new president.
Hailing from a very poor family, Roh was a self-made man without a college degree in an elitist society that values formal education. His home town in Gyeongsang Province near Busan was a conservative stronghold but Roh was a progressive politician who made his name as a champion of labor rights.
In an unexpected move, Roh Tae-Woo, Chun’s hand-picked successor to lead the ruling Democratic Justice Party, capitulated to several of the opposition’s demands in June of that year. In December 1987, direct presidential elections were held. In 1987, a highly mobilized social movement forced a democratic breakthrough in Korea.
The domestic political situation in the Republic was relatively stable, in contrast to the turbulence associated with the assassination of President Park Chung Hee in 1979 and the military-dominated regime that succeeded him. Responding to widespread popular unrest in 1987, the authorities permitted a genuinely democratic election in which Roh Tae Woo was elected President. Despite his military background, Roh Tae Woo's administration was marked with internal liberalization, a more serious search for reduced tensions with North Korea, and successful efforts to improve relations with North Korea's allies. Except for sporadic outbursts, radical activism waned and both presidential and parliamentary elections have proceeded freely.
President Roh, who had a weak support base of the people, pursued his politics based on the democratic ideas of the June 29th Declaration, and successfully hosted the Seoul Olympics in 1988. By implementing an open policy towards the north, President Roh established diplomatic ties with the socialist countries of the Soviet Union and China. In 1991, both South and North Korea were simultaneously accepted as members to the United Nations.
After more than three and a half years of his presidency, it was clear to some that he had failed to meet the expectation of the people for democratic reforms and a rebuilding of democratic institutions. In the view of many, Kim Young-sam had failed because of his role in the three-party merger and the complacency of supporters of authoritarian regimes who resisted reform.
The absence of solidarity within the opposition camp had been one of the primary causes for the opposition's failure in taking over the reigns of government. President Roh Tae Woo was limited by South Korea's 1987 democratic reforms to a single five-year term. He had hoped to pave the way for an easy succession by another ruling party politician.
During the 1992 presidential election, Kim Young-sam, a political activist who had long fought for democracy was elected president, marking the first occasion where a civilian president would lead the state since the military coup d’etat of May 16th. President Kim formulated laws that demanded the registration of assets of higher government officials and introduced the real-name system in banking and finance. He also recognized the lost honors of the May 18th Gwangju Democratization Movement, and of the people who sacrificed their lives. However, at the end of 1997, the failure to appropriately manage foreign reserves brought on a national economic crisis. A democratic movement leader, Kim Dae-jung, was elected as the next president and the efforts for achieving democracy and unification gained new momentum.
News of former President Roh Moo-hun's suicide on 23 May 2009 sparked intense feelings of anger directed at President Lee Myung-bak. Roh's sympathizers accused Lee of conducting a politically motivated investigation into allegations that Roh had received more than US$6 million in bribes either while in office or immediately after leaving the Blue House, and that the prosecutors had literally hounded Roh to death. On April 30 Roh underwent the humiliation of being summoned to the prosecutor's office for questioning about his knowledge of money received by his wife and children.
Moon Jae-in, Roh's former Chief of Staff, said, "prosecutors had already decided Roh was guilty and then investigated him to justify their conclusion, so there is some truth in saying that this was a political killing."
Above all, Roh stood for cleaning up politics, doing away with regionalism, and reconciling with the North. This vision captured the imagination of the Korean public and catapulted him to the presidency. That by his own admission he failed to fulfill his vision does not diminish the public's support for the kind of politics he promised.
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