Sunday, May 24, 2009
Death of a leader - Roh Moo-hyun
May 23rd 2009 | BONGHA VILLAGE AND SEOUL From Economist.com A former president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, jumps off a cliff and kills himself Reuters THE home of the former South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, in the tiny village of Bongha, is surrounded by picturesque wooded hills. In the spring fire swept across the hills, blackening them. At the same time, in April, Mr Roh’s reputation was being tarnished as he admitted to graft. Since then Mr Roh, whose elder brother is in prison after being convicted of bribery, had been expecting prosecutors to bring charges. But rather than face more public humiliation Mr Roh committed suicide on Saturday May 23rd by jumping off a cliff. In a note the 62 year old said that he “made the life of too many people difficult”. He requested that his family burn his body and erect a simple grave stone to mark his life. “Isn’t life and death one?” asked the former president. Responding to the news, the justice ministry announced that it would stop the investigation into Mr Roh and his family. Corruption scandals have haunted every South Korean president. The children of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam went to jail for graft. Two former presidents, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, went to prison after it was found they had solicited hundreds of millions of dollars from the country’s biggest business groups. Mr Roh was thought to be different. He had campaigned all his political life against corruption. When he left office at the end of his five-year presidential term last year, he went back to his home village, enhancing his reputation as a man of the people. The son of poor farmers, Mr Roh had studied for the bar and then become a practising lawyer, becoming known as a people’s champion after defending students who had been arrested for protesting against Chun Doo-hwan, a dictatorial leader. Mr Roh gave up his law practice for politics in the mid-1980s, serving in the National Assembly, where he campaigned against corruption. That caught the attention of South Korea’s best known political figure, Kim Dae-jung. In 1997 Mr Roh organised Mr Kim’s successful presidential campaign. Five years later, Mr Roh surprised perhaps even himself in the race to be president by defeating the favoured establishment candidate, a former Supreme Court chief justice, Lee Hoi-chong. He did so by appealing to the modest aspirations of the poor, middle class and university students. His term as president was tumultuous. The business community saw him as a leftist maverick intent on redistributing wealth by imposing progressive taxes. At one point he was impeached, accused of corruption, although he was not convicted. Mr Roh, troubled by abuse of the highest office by his predecessors, sought to institute more checks and balances on the president and more forms of oversight. He continued the “Sunshine Policy” of Kim Dae-jung, which called for engagement of North Korea. He sought to deepen social, political and economic contacts with Pyongyang, the northern capital, to the disquiet of Washington. Meetings with the American leader were never relaxed, and although a free-trade agreement was signed between the two countries, and despite the presence of many American troops in South Korea, the alliance grew testy. In October 2007 Mr Roh went to Pyongyang, against the advice of George Bush’s White House. North Korea had exploded a nuclear bomb in 2006 and Washington did not want its ally shaking hands or signing agreements with Kim Jong Il. Mr Roh’s efforts while in office to redistribute wealth were reversed by his successor, Lee Myung-bak, a former boss of the Hyundai Group. Mr Lee has also cooled relations with North Korea. South Korean tourist groups no longer travel across the heavily armed inter-Korean border. The future of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea, a joint venture between southern capital and northern labour, is in doubt following a series of capricious demands by Pyongyang. North Korea has said it will not return to six-party talks on ending its nuclear-weapons programme. In his retirement Mr Roh criticised his successor’s policies towards North Korea. At his village he began to reclaim some of his former popularity. His home became popular among tourists and the former president would often greet holiday-makers at his front gate. But in April, on his website under the heading, “I Apologise”, Mr Roh said that he had requested, received and used money from a businessman. He said that he had a “debt to repay”. Mr Roh may have accepted at least $6m and numerous gifts through family members and former aides. In time his reputation may recover somewhat, but locals are unimpressed. “Before this incident I thought he was a clean president and I respected him. I have changed my mind”, says Park Song-deuk, a resident of Mr Roh’s village.