Roh Moo-Hyun: President of South Korea whose period in office was riddled with problems

Born into a poor farming background in the south east of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun began studying law as a way to escape poverty. As it was, for a young man whose parents had been unable to pay for his schooling, it would introduce him to issues and causes that would forever change his life and ultimately project him towards the presidency.

In 1981, against the backdrop of mounting dissatisfaction with the country’s authoritarian regime, the rising lawyer was asked to defend one of two dozen students who had been seized and detained for possessing banned literature. While they were held in custody, the students were tortured and their experience inspired Roh. “When I saw their horrified eyes and their missing toenails, my comfortable life as a lawyer came to an end,” he later said.

Several years later, Roh emerged as one of the leaders of the 1987 “June struggle”, an uprising against the dictatorship.

When he was found guilty of abetting striking workers, he was jailed for three weeks. Thus blooded, the following year he finally entered politics, accepting an invitation from Kim Young-sam – the man who would later become South Korea’s first civilian president – to join his Democratic Reunification Party. The same year he was elected as a member of the country’s national assembly and, in a move that earned him his first public attention, took part in a parliamentary hearing which grilled the government over public corruption allegations.

During the 1990s, Roh switched back and forth between several parties and in 2000 he was appointed as the minister for maritime affairs and fisheries under Kim Dae-jung.

It was his only real government experience before winning the presidential election of 2002. Using an internet and text-message strategy to target younger voters and campaigning as an anti-American, Roh secured victory over his rival Lee Hoi-chang by a slim margin.

When he came to office, Roh appeared to offer South Korea a new start. He was relatively youthful, independent and seemed ready to tackle the country’s deeply embedded political corruption. In addition to promising not to “kowtow to the Americans” he also supported the “sunshine” policy of diplomatic approach towards North Korea.

Yet Roh’s term was riddled with problems. At one point he threatened to quit and on another he voiced his fears that he was too “incompetent” to serve as the president. There was also controversy when he and his supporters left the Millennium Democratic Party in 2003 to form a new party, the Uri Party. His decision to send South Korean troops to Iraq was deeply unpopular while his diplomatic pursuit of the north was seized on by his opportunist as appeasement.

He was even suspended early in 2004, after parliament voted to impeach him over a breach of election rules, but a constitutional court later overturned the move.

Three years later, with the economy stumbling and with the public showing concern about rising employment and soaring house prices, Roh suffered a landslide defeat to the conservative Lee Myung Bak. Last month, he was questioned over allegations that he had taken millions in bribes from a wealthy businessman. He later apologised for the scandal and in a statement on his website he admitted that his wife had received a substantial sum of money from the businessman, but suggested it was not a bribe but a payment to help her settle a debt.

Yet for the man who had prided himself as being a clean broom, the endless attention he started to receive was too much. On 30 April, when he had to travel to Seoul to face the prosecutors’ questions, he was followed by helicopters hired by news crews. It was considered a huge embarrassment. In his last posting, Roh wrote that he could “no longer symbolise the values” he once championed and told his supporters to discard him. A month later Roh, drove out from his home in his native village of Bongha on the south coast, climbed a hill and jumped from a cliff. In a note, written on his computer for his wife and two children, he wrote: “Don’t be too sad. Life and death are all parts of nature.”

Andrew Buncombe

Roh Moo-hyun, politician: born Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do, South Korea 6 August 1946; elected to South Korean National Assembly, 1988; minister of maritime affairs and fisheries, 2000-02; founder, Uri Party, 2003; president of South Korea, 2003-08; married (two children); died Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam- do 23 May 2009.

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