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.



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones