May 23, 2017 in the city of Gimhae, Gyeongsang-Namdo Province, was marked by a commemoration of the eighth anniversary of the death of former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun. The ceremony was attended by the new President of the Republic of Korea, Mr. Moon Jae-in, who was accompanied by top dignitaries and representatives of political circles that the deceased was closely associated with.
In observing the actions and measures that Moon Jae-in took and enacted in his first month in office, many experts note that Mr Moon’s style of leadership closely resembles that of Ex-President Roh Moo-hyun, whose administration Moon headed. Moon Jae-in is reappointing officials from the administration of Roh Moo-hyun to key posts and positions, and sometimes borrows expressions from the former leader’s speeches. The new leader is displaying a brand of populism that is similar to that of his predecessor, and even wears the characteristic straw hat that was the icon of the image of Roh Moo-hyun.
Meanwhile, from the author’s point of view, if the new president of the Republic of Korea turns out to be a carbon copy of Roh Moo-hyun, he and his left-wingers will be met with no less failure or scandal than the one that ended the reign of Park Geun-hye. But why is that so?
Although, in analyzing Korean history, the author is more sympathetic to the left, and can even be considered by some to be pro-North Korean, the author assesses the aftermath of Roh Moo-hyun’s term in office extremely negatively, despite the fact that, as far as foreign policy was concerned, he more or less continued the leftist course that Kim Dae-jung had etched, incorporating into it the policy of “solar heat”. He even tried to reconsider many commonly believed historical myths by creating a commission on national reconciliation and doing a lot to improve the rights of women. Alas, in all other areas, he was otherwise a classic “insignificant man” by Confucian standards, and the author would like to remind the readers how the image of the “president in a straw hat” was remembered so much that after him, the conservative representative won with almost the same gap as Moon Jae-in.
Aggressive barbarism and the “destroy everything old, and then everything will somehow work itself out” leadership style. Roh Moo-hyun constantly positioned himself as a man who “did not study in gymnasiums, but nevertheless succeeded.” Riding his self-made pedestal and denigrating educated people, Roh Moo-hyun always flaunted his lack of higher education, even going as far as publishing an odious book entitled “Korea Shall Survive Long after Seoul University Disappears!”
As a result, many of the appointees of Roh Moo-hyun resembled the heroes of the early restructuring period in that they combined a serious lack of adequate experience in practical leadership and frenzied enthusiasm in the desire to destroy old traditions without a clearly formulated positive program outlining what should take their place afterwards. Suffice it to recall such ambitious projects as the transfer of the country’s capital to a specially built city in Central Korea, or the proposal to introduce English as the second official language of the country. Instead of a concrete and holistic course towards peace, a collection of wishes of the masses was made within the context of an “all-inclusive government”, which essentially meant, “Bring forth your ideas. Your government does not have its own.”
It is not surprising that a year after he assumed power, out of 19 cabinet ministers, only 3 had retained their posts, and it was right from that time that the average ministerial career began lasting just over a year.
Even the populist laws turned into problems. For instance, after a law stipulating the gradual introduction of a five-day working week in the country and an increase in the duration of holidays was adopted, its approval was met with a stormy protest by trade unions, as the law did not prohibit entrepreneurs from reducing workers’ wages in proportion to the reduction of working time.
The domestic policy that Roh Moo-hyun adopted resulted in a sharp rise in the price of housing, an increase in unemployment (30% of graduates of higher educational institutions could not find a job, and 60% had inconsistent wages, while half the same workers were receiving inconsistent wages), and an increase in the gap between the poor and rich, which, towards the end of his term in office, worried the general population much more than the development of an inter-Korean dialogue, and radically contradicted the pre-election promises of the “people’s president”. As a result, in the 2007 elections, conservative representative Lee Myung-bak garnered 48.7% of the vote, almost twice ahead of his opponent from the “left”, for whom only 26.2% of the voters cast their ballots.
The betrayal by the comrades-in-arms. Roh Moo-hyun came to power as an appointee of Kim Dae-jung, to whom he was closely connected before the 2002 presidential election. However, on becoming president, Roh not only swayed away from the old circles of Kim Dae-jung and formed his own party, but also quickly liquidated the remaining circles of his predecessor. And if he was afraid of raising a hand on a Nobel Peace Prize winner, then all the people close to Kim and all the representatives of his old guard were safely imprisoned by them, especially in the case of Pak Chi Won, now one of the leaders of the People’s Party. Former Head of Administration Kim Dae-jung was accused of extorting from the Hyundai Company KRW 15 billion, which was sent to the DPRK as a secret payment for holding the Pyongyang 2000 Summit. The whole process was initiated back during the presidency of Kim Dae-jung by representatives of the opposition party, who counted on the fact that the whole “business of the bought summit” would play a crucial role in the then forthcoming presidential elections. Although this failed to happen, after coming to power, Roh Moo-hyun killed two birds with one stone: he got rid of inner-Party opposition and threw a bone to his opponents, while playing the role of an honest and objective president, for whom justice is more important than personal attachments.
The court acknowledged that Pak’s actions in organizing the transfer of the money to the North were made in the interest of the state, but although the charge was based on circumstantial evidence and testimony of untrustworthy witnesses, Pak was sentenced to an effective 12 years in prison all for not showing any signs of repentance and denying his guilt.
A similar situation developed with the young people and the Internet. At first, the supporters of Roh Moo-hyun battled with pedophiles and actively hung out lists of sexual harassment suspects, with the so-called suspects mixed up with convicts, and real rapists with those who had just grabbed people in intimate places. Spinning on the wave of support from the online audience, Roh Moo-hyun slipped through the closing doors precisely because in the second half of the election day, when it became clear that the conservatives were leading, his supporters arranged an “online mobilization” and dragged the youth to vote. However, it was during the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun that regulations on online communication were tightened: in particular, the “Internet on provision of a passport” measure was introduced, formally to combat cyber-trilling, but in reality, to make sure that no one would use this same method against the new government. By the way, when the Korean hostage in Iraq was killed in 2005, social networks, including the LiveJournal, had long been gagged.
The condemned anti-Americanism combined with an extreme degree of sycophancy in front of the “values of globalization”. During the presidential race, Rho Moo Hyun actively promoted the story of the Yangju highway incident, thus instigating a massive anti-American hysteria. But was something done to restore justice? No. As early as January 2003, representatives of American business circles informed their Korean colleagues that the rating of confidence in South Korea would soon be lowered, and among the reasons for this increased risk was the growth of anti-Americanism in the Republic of Korea, and, combined with rumors that this trend was directly supported by the president, the protests immediately “died off.”
Roh Moo-hyun repeatedly said that his political idols were Tony Blair, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson, and that he did not set himself as an example for any Korean politician. Moreover, the president even underwent a plastic surgery to alter the slant of his eyes and look more like a European and less than a Mongoloid. Even more, the inauguration of the president took place under the “O Sole Mio”, and not a typical Korean melody.
Everyone remembers how Roh Moo-hyun declared, “We will not crawl on our belly before the Americans,” and periodically tried to humiliate the US military at diplomatic events. It was only in April 2003 that he turned out to be the president, after Pak Jung Hee, who deployed South Korean troops to assist the US forces. For four years and three months, 18,000 Korean soldiers served in Iraq and Kuwait. This was the third largest military contingent after the United States and Great Britain, and the decision to withdraw the troops was only taken in 2008 by the conservatives.
By the way, when a South Korean hostage was kidnapped and then killed in Iraq in the summer of 2004, the country’s leadership announced that it did not intend to stop increasing its military presence in Iraq, and sent another 3,000 soldiers there. Those who tried to criticize the authorities were “caught” under charges of non-patriotism, and all the “unauthorized” information on this case was cleaned even from the wider introduction of the Internet. Youth representatives who “downloaded” the video of the execution were accused of disseminating ideologically harmful information and made to pay significant fines.
Political repressions against “family members of the enemies of the people”. Under the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun, being a conservative meant experiencing as many problems in life and career as being a dissident before. Those whose viewpoints did not meet the general line were subjected to significant pressure. But this is nothing compared to how the “democratic president” tried to return to the practice of political repression within the framework of the Law on the Punishment of “National Traitors” for those people whose fathers or grandfathers had occupied some posts in the colonial period. At the same time, the law was to have a retroactive effect, and extended not only to the collaborators themselves, but also their descendants. Under its blow emerged Park Geun-hye, who by this time had become one of the most prominent leaders of the conservatives and leaders of a number of chebols, whose well-being had begun to take shape even before 1945. Punishing the “family members of the enemies of the people” was not possible only because, firstly, the accused parents turned out to be the majority of the companions of Roh Moo-hyun, and secondly, the international community and left-wing circles decided that punishing children for the sins of their fathers (including giving them prison terms and confiscating their property) was, after all, way over-the-top.
The use of forms of harassment and incitement to suicide in the political race.
In the case of Roh Moo-hyun, I can recall a minimum of three such cases: Roh’s winner of the Busan mayoral elections An Sang Yong, whom the president repeatedly tried to win over to his side and force him to provide support in his native Busan region; Head of the Hyundai Company Chung Mong-koo, whose brother, a politician, on the last day before the presidential election refused to support Roh; businessman Nam Son Guk, whose death spurred an unsuccessful attempt to impeach. In all these cases, public harassment, initiated personally by the president, who did not hesitate to use abusive language, led to the suicide of those who were persecuted, after which the corruption charges were dropped due to the deaths of suspects and the question “Was the guy there?” remained open.
Finally, let us recall the situation that finally made Roh Moo-hyun himself take his own life. The suicide happened before Roh and his wife had to answer the next series of questions from the prosecutor’s office. The man who had built his election and presidential campaign on the principle of “vote for our candidate, he has not stolen anything” (turned “the president’s entourage still steals ten times less than his opponents”), must himself have been flawless. This is because the request to fight corruption (the same “do not lie and do not steal”) works only when the proclaimer of this slogan really does not lie and does not steal, and not when, as it turned out, he “takes investments in the family business” amounting to USD 6 million minimum. We should note that with the evidence base in this process, everything was much clearer than with the story of the benefits allegedly granted to Park Geun-hye. The prevailing clues pointed out that the president could not have been unaware of what was happening, especially since the person allegedly accepting the bribe was his old friend and the sponsor of his political campaign.
It is no wonder that, according to one of the rumors, to which I personally do not subscribe, the martyr’s own comrades, for which the dead martyr was much more preferable to the living convict, helped him fall off the cliff. This is taking into account that, with the pile of bribes and the image of the “honest simple guy” that Roh Moo-hyun had sculpted, a successful anti-corruption process against him would immediately turn into a process against the entire left movement and all that he personified. During the 2017 elections, the conservatives even tried to play this card, accusing Moon of personally killing him.
This is precisely why the author hopes that the new leader of South Korea will be able to “kill the Roh Moo-hyun in himself.” Otherwise, there are indications that he can be “the worst president in the history of the country” even going back earlier than Park Geun-hye. The country has changed, civil society has grown, and attempts to reemploy a style that was effective a decade ago could lead to very somber consequences.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (Hist.), leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of the Far East of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.