FORMER President Roh Moo-hyuns suicide in the last week of May came as a rude shock to South Koreans. In East Asia, Japan has seen its politicians and prominent personalities commit suicide, but such incidents are rare in Korea. More than a hundred thousand Koreans streamed into the village near the south-eastern port of Pusan, where Roh chose to live after leaving the presidency last year, to pay their last respects to him.
At the beginning of the year, government prosecutors had interrogated him on charges of corruption. His wife and two children have been accused of accepting bribes amounting to $6 million when he was in power. Even if the allegations are true, the amount mentioned is pretty insignificant, given the scale of corruption in the country. Former Presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo had collected $1 billion and $500 million respectively in slush funds during their tenures in office. Both of them were tried and jailed for treason.
The humiliation of being subjected to interrogation by state prosecutors was apparently too much to bear for the sensitive Roh, 62, who cared deeply for his image as a clean politician. In his last web posting just hours before his death, Roh wrote: You should now discard me. I no longer symbolise the values you pursue. I am no longer qualified to speak on such issues as democracy, progress and justice. I fell into an abyss, which I cannot escape. Many South Koreans have already started saying that Roh was a victim of a conspiracy hatched by his political opponents who are now at the helm of affairs.
A left-leaning newspaper, Hankoryeh, wrote in an editorial that the government should stop using prosecutors as perpetrators. When Roh was President, he had tried to weaken the powers of the National Prosecutors Office. Almost all South Korean Presidents in recent history have, after demitting office, faced investigations from the Prosecutors Office, which works directly under the office of the President. To the lasting credit of Roh, he never used the presidential office to hound his opponents.
Roh was elected President in 2003 on a populist platform that included promises of eradicating the widespread corruption in the countrys politics and the implementation of an independent foreign policy. On the campaign trail, Roh had promised not to kowtow to America. As a young activist, he had called for the withdrawal of all American forces from the Korean peninsula.
However, after occupying the Blue House, the Presidents official residence, Roh supported most of the George Bush administrations key policies, including the disastrous war in Iraq. He even agreed to send Korean troops to Iraq despite strong public opinion against such a move. It was also during the Roh presidency that South Korea entered into a domestically unpopular free trade agreement with the United States.
At the personal level, Roh had an uncomfortable relationship with Bush. The American President unilaterally put North Korea in his axis of evil list after the events of September 11, 2001, and in the process undermined Seouls sunshine policy towards Pyongyang. In the last year of the Clinton presidency, considerable progress was made in bringing North Korea into the international mainstream. Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, visited Pyongyang and met the reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il.
Roh, who had lacked support from an established political party, was probably the first politician to win the presidency by skilfully using the Internet to woo voters. He was also the first candidate born after the Second World War to contest for the presidency. His comparative youth and dynamism won him the support of the younger generation, who, unlike their elders, had fewer phobias about dealing with the North. The younger generation also did not feel unduly indebted to the U.S. for all the military and economic aid it provided during the Cold War period.
Once in office, Roh, to the chagrin of his right-wing detractors, continued with the sunshine policy of his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung. That policy had brought a tentative rapprochement with Pyongyang. High-level contacts between the leaderships of the North and the South resumed for the first time after more than five decades of sustained hostility. The policy brought economic dividends to the South. Korean chaebols (big conglomerates) were allowed to set up factories in the North, where labour was cheaper.
On hearing about Rohs demise, Kim Jong-il sent his personal condolences to the former Presidents family. Roh and Kim had met in Pyongyang in 2007 for the second and last summit between the leaders of the two countries. Roh made the historic move of crossing the 38th Parallel, the latitudinal line that divides the Korean peninsula roughly in the middle, on his way to the summit in Pyongyang. The summit meeting resulted in a joint declaration of peace and cooperation.
When he was running for President, the right-wing media dwelt on the fact that his father-in-law was once arrested for being sympathetic to the banned Communist Party. Roh, who hailed from an extremely poor family, by the dint of intelligence and hard work, passed the highly competitive South Korean bar examination. He was a judge for a brief period before becoming a full-time lawyer. His tryst with political activism started after he defended university students jailed by the repressive military regimes that were in power until the late 1980s.
Roh, who had started concentrating on human rights cases, was himself briefly imprisoned in 1987 and is recognised as one of the leaders of the 1987 June struggle, which saw the demise of the U.S.-backed military regime.
Roh was elected to the National Assembly in 1988 and soon gained a reputation as a skilful legislator who was not afraid to cross swords with the powerful establishment. An indignant Roh, once threw his name plaque at former President Chun Doo-hwan during the hearings on the infamous Gwangju massacre of 1987 in which pro-democracy protesters were shot dead by the security forces.
Lee Myung-bak, who took over as President from Roh 15 months ago, has reversed almost all the foreign policy initiatives of Roh. The sunshine policy was the first to be abandoned. One of the first decisions Lee took after assuming power was to cut off the much-needed humanitarian aid of several hundred tonnes of rice to the beleaguered people of the North. This resulted in the hardening of the Norths attitude towards the South.
It may not be a coincidence, but the day after Rohs death was announced, North Korea went in for its second nuclear test. During Rohs tenure, the North had engaged in serious discussions on matters relating to disarmament in the six-party talks. Many South Korean activists say that while Roh pursued a peace policy, Lee has created new tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang.