Roh Moo-hyun (1946-2008, president 2003-2008) became leader in 2003 after Kim Dae Jung’s term was over. A populist candidate with a nice smile, he proved to be an ineffectual leader. Soon after he was sworn doubts were raised about his ability to govern. Within months his administration was involved in scandals that ultimately lead to Roh’s impeachment. A year after he left office he committed suicide.

Roh was a self-made human rights lawyer and member of Kim Dae Jung’s party. Roh won the presidential election in December 2002 despite problems experienced by Kim and his party during the later part of Kim’s term. Anna Fifield wrote in the Financial Times: “Roh came from nowhere to sweep the 2002 elections and, as a self-made man from a poor background, was welcomed as a breath of fresh air in South Korea’s entrenched political environment. However, he has disappointed liberals with his support for initiatives such as a trade deal with the US, and angered conservatives with his moves to diminish the five-decades-old military alliance with the US.

Aidan Foster-Carter wrote in The Guardian: Roh “broke the mould – though in the end the mould broke him. His tenure of the Blue House (2003-08) antagonised the Seoul elite and Washington while disappointing his fans, many of whom shared his poor origins. Dismay grew as a corruption scandal enveloped him, finally driving him to jump from a clifftop near his home after leaving a suicide note in his computer..."Discard me," Roh wrote in his blog. For all his flaws, history will judge him less harshly than that. His very weakness helped democracy. No emperor, he delegated and did not abuse power markedly. The economy grew at a fair clip, even if he had no clear vision for it. An odd mix of Candide-like innocence and often misplaced guile, Roh could be a fool. Yet he was a breath of fresh air, and his street-smart instincts did not lack vision. His end is a tragedy, for him and for Korea. [Source: Aidan Foster-Carter, The Guardian, May 25, 2009]

According to AFP: “Roh deserved praise for breaking the deep-rooted relationship between politicians and traditional power-holders by reducing the power of the conservative media and conglomerates, said Choi Jin, a Korea University professor. But he was also faulted for economic mismanagement. In February 2007 he quit the Uri party he had helped found, apparently acknowledging he had become a political liability in a presidential election year. By the end of his single five-year term the popularity of Roh and his liberal supporters was low. Conservative Lee Myung-Bak heavily defeated the liberal candidate in the December 2007 presidential poll.” [Source: AFP, May 23, 2009] According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “A major fund-raising scandal that implicated both major parties in 2003 delayed Roh's ability to advance several bills through parliament as the majority of parliament was concerned with investigating the scandal. This was particularly embarrassing to Roh, who, during his campaign, had pledged to end corruption within the government. Roh faced a major crisis in 2004 when opposition parties brought about a parliamentary vote to impeach him. However, South Koreans supported Roh and his party, the Uri Dang Party, and voted a majority into parliament in 2004. Roh was allowed to resume the presidency after a parliamentary vote to overturn the impeachment but Roh's aggressive political style and staunch alliance with the United States continued to divide the populace. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: “The Uri party, which had been hit by a number of scandals and ministerial resignations since winning control of parliament, lost its narrow majority in that body in March 2005. In April Han Myung-Sook, a member of the Uri party, became the first woman to be elected prime minister of South Korea; real power in the South Korean government, however, resides with the president. Local elections in May, 2006, resulted in significant losses for the Uri party. After the North's nuclear test in Oct., 2006, South Korea imposed some sanctions and supported the UN-adopted military sanctions, but remained committed to its policy of engagement with the North and the significant economic trade involved. In early 2007, after the Uri party had suffered significant defections in the National Assembly Roh resigned from the party in an attempt to avoid further losses. Prime Minister Han resigned in March, and in April a free-trade agreement was reached with the United States. In October the leaders of the North and South met in a second summit in Pyongyang. “ [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Roh Moo-hyun’s Early Life

Roh Moo-hyun was born on August 6, 1946 into a family of chicken and peach farmers in Bongha, a village of 100 or so near Kimhae, about 32 kilometers miles northeast of Pusan. The house he lived in had an outhouse and no electricity. In primary school his classmates called him “stone bean,” a reference his toughness and small size. A note uncovered by South Korean newspapers by his first grade teacher read: Roh had “talents in all subjects, especially presentation of his opinions.”

Roh is self-educated. He attended a commercial high school and didn’t attend university, in part because his family was too poor so send him there. He took a number of low-paying jobs and studied on his own. He passed the very tough Korean bar exam in 1975 even though he never attended college. He served briefly as a judge before opening up a private practice when he was 32. In 1971 Roh married his village sweetheart, Kwon Yang-sook. They had a son and a daughter. He listed his hobbies as bowling and hiking. Before he became president he had never been abroad

Aidan Foster-Carter wrote in The Guardian: “Roh, the youngest child of a poor farmer, never lost his roots in Korea's rural south-east. His nickname was "stone bean": small but tough. Unable to afford college, he worked on building sites while studying at night for South Korea's formidable bar examination. Passing this in 1975 – a remarkable feat for a non-graduate – he was briefly a judge before practising as a lawyer.” [Source: Aidan Foster-Carter, The Guardian, May 25, 2009]

Roh Moo-hyun’s Political Career

Roh was elected to his first, office, the student council, when he was in the 6th grade. When he was 14 he led a student boycott against mandatory essays praising the South Korean leadership. Roh was jailed for three weeks in September 1987 for participation in a pro-democracy rally on charges of causing an illegal strike. Roh made a name for himself as human rights lawyer defending student and labor activists who were persecuted by South Korea’s military regime. He drew national attention in 1988 after he was elected to parliament and grilled army leaders over their involvement in the Kwangju massacre in 1980 and did the same to the leaders of South Korea’s top corporations on corruption.

Aidan Foster-Carter wrote in The Guardian: His wife’s “father was once jailed as pro-communist. At first more upwardly mobile than political – with a comfortable tax practice, he joined the local yacht club – in 1980 Roh defended students tortured on trumped-up charges by Seoul's then military dictators. By his own account, the sight of torn-out toenails radicalised him. Now specialising in human rights cases, he was briefly jailed in 1987, the year democracy was restored. Elected to the national assembly for the port city of Pusan, he gained fame for grilling generals and tycoons in sessions broadcast on television. Such irreverence struck a fresh note in a country still in fear of the military and in awe of elites. [Source: Aidan Foster-Carter, The Guardian, May 25, 2009]

According to AFP: “He was elected to parliament in 1988 and won fame in his first year during a parliamentary hearing on the past wrongdoings of Chuns government, when he spoke out against the dictatorship and cross-questioned witnesses. In the early 1990s he backed a petition calling for US troops to leave Korea. [Source: AFP, May 23, 2009]

Foster-Carter wrote: “A spell in the wilderness followed. When his mentor Kim Young Sam allied with generals to win the presidency in 1993, a disgusted Roh threw in his lot with Kim Young Sam's rival, the long-time dissident Kim Dae Jung. Regional antagonism between the south-east and Kim Dae Jung's south-west made the latter a losing ticket in Pusan, but Roh doggedly ran and lost three times. His image as a principled if quixotic loser inspired his supporters.”

After Roh lost his seat in parliament in April 2000 his supporters launched a fan club called Nosamo “Roh lover group.” They launched a popular website about him and helped increase his stature in Kim Dae Jung’s Millennium Democratic Party (MDP). Under, Kim Dae Jung, Roh served as Minister of Fisheries.

Roh Moo-hyun Wins Presidential Election in 2002

In the presidential election held in December 2002, Roh Moo-hyun of the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP, Kim Dae Jung’s party) defeated Lee Hoi Chang, a conservative from the Grand National Party. Roh came out of nowhere at the last minute and won the election with 48.9 percent of the vote. Lee had 46.6 percent. The turnout was around 70 percent, low for a South Korean election. Roh win was regarded as dramatic upset, something at least partly achieved by utilizing the power of the Internet to drum up support.

Lee was a former prime minister and supreme court judge who ran against Kim Dae Jung in 1997 and narrowly lost. He supported the American presence in South Korea and was an opponent of Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy.” He had been the front runner in the election for as long as anybody could remember.

Roh Moo-hyun campaigned on promises of improving relations with North Korea and vows not be “bossed around” by United States. His anti-American stance made him popular with young South Koreans, who were angered over the acquittal of American soldiers in the death of two South Korea school girls in a road accident. Much of his support came from young people. labor and supporters of Kim Dae Jung.

Aidan Foster-Carter wrote in The Guardian: “ Kim Dae Jung won the presidency in 1997, and Roh served briefly as fisheries minister. Yet he was still a political outsider when the ruling party decided to choose its next candidate – South Korean presidents serve a single five-year term – via the country's first primaries. To elite consternation, a bandwagon began to roll, delivering Roh the nomination. Insiders tried to deselect him; at one point he trailed third in the polls. But on the day, in December 2002, he narrowly defeated a stiff conservative former judge. Koreans wanted a change.” [Source: Aidan Foster-Carter, The Guardian, May 25, 2009]

Roh Moo-hyun as President

Roh took office in February 2003 and chose four women to be in his cabinet. His early rule was marked corruption scandals, paralysis in government, labor strikes, anti-American demonstrations and tensions with North Korea. The MDP split when some of Roh’s supporters formed the New Party for the Particpatory Union. Roh became associated with the Uri Party.

According to AFP: “After inauguration in early 2003, he described his priorities as the emergence of his country as an East Asian economic and technological hub and reconciliation with communist North Korea. He also sought a policy of 'balanced diplomacy' by lessening dependence on long-time ally the United States. Roh pushed a generally liberal agenda, calling for a fairer distribution of wealth and characterising himself as a fighter for the underprivileged. But his aggressive and provocative remarks, coupled with a lack of skill in building political ties, often led to confrontations. After a year in office, Roh became the first South Korean president to be impeached for an alleged breach of election laws. He survived the impeachment and propelled his party to a sweeping victory in general elections in 2004. [Source: AFP, May 23, 2009]

Aidan Foster-Carter wrote in The Guardian: In office Roh proved divisive. The establishment hated him, and he them. Shunning, and at one point suing, the conservative print dailies, Roh favoured left-leaning online news sites such as OhmyNews. He promoted the radical "386 generation": in their 30s, at college in the 1980s and born in the 1960s. Populist and anti-American, the 386ers sounded a new assertive note. Roh himself unusually had never visited the U.S. before (though he wrote a book about Abraham Lincoln) and answered his critics by saying he did not see why he should have gone just to kowtow. But the left was soon disappointed. Roh sent troops to Iraq and in 2007 signed a free trade accord with the US, in the teeth of fierce street protests, a Korean speciality. If Iraq was a sop to President George Bush so that Roh could continue a "sunshine" policy of engaging North Korea, the trade agreement seemed a real change of heart, rejecting the old "fortress Korea" mentality.” [Source: Aidan Foster-Carter, The Guardian, May 25, 2009]

Under Roh, South Korea set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in December 2005 to investigate long-suppressed allegations of atrocities by Koreans and Americans before, during and after the Korean War (1950-53) to "reconcile the past for the sake of national unity." It had a broad mandate to expose human rights abuses from Korea's pre-1945 Japanese colonial period through South Korea's military dictatorships into the 1980s. The commission revealed details of a number atrocities primarily against communist sympathizers before and during the Korean War and civilians killed in battle zones during the war but largely left the period after the war unexamined. The commission was expected to release a final, thorough report on its findings in 2010 but at that time commission was abruptly shut after its tone and investigation softened under the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak, elected in December 2007. [Source: Charles J. Hanley and Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press, July 10, 2010, Wikipedia]

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: “In August 2004, Roh announced that executive and administrative functions of the government would be moved to a new capital carved from portions of Yeongi county and Gongju city in South Chungcheong province, with construction to begin in 2007 and the relocation to be completed by 2030. Intended to reduce Seoul's economic dominance and overcrowding, the proposal provoked constitutional challenges from its opponents. In October the constitutional court ruled that a referendum or a constitutional amendment would be required before the move could be made. Construction of Sejong City continued, however, as a government center, and the city was officially inaugurated in 2012.

Roh Moo-hyun’s Problems as President

Everything Roh Moo-hyun did seemed to go against him. An effort to form better relations with Japan was interpreted as bowing to Korea’s former colonial ruler. Sending South Korean troops to Iraq and scolding North Korea were viewed as bowing to the United States and a flip flop on his campaign promises.

Roh Moo-hyun took office when the nation was crippled by strikes. He angered some of his labor supporters by cracking down hard on strikers. Many South Koreans felt that over all he was too easy on the unions and left many issues unresolved. By the fall of 2003 his approval rating had dropped to 34 percent.

Roh’s policies were inconsistent and his management style was weak. Many South Koreans were left feeling confused and angered by his lack of leadership. His clean image was tarnished by allegations of corruption of those close to him. The Korean Times asserted” “No other South Korean government has so confused the nation and suffered the lowest support from the public in its early stage as Roh’s has done.”

Aidan Foster-Carter wrote in The Guardian: “ Policies apart, Roh's style grated. His mouth tended to run away with him. This spontaneity, refreshing at first, was often combative and crude. He admitted that on official trips – including the first ever Korean state visit to the UK, in 2004 – he packed ramyon (instant noodles). Having no English small talk was a problem too: by the time the interpreter was summoned, the moment had passed. [Source: Aidan Foster-Carter, The Guardian, May 25, 2009]

“At home Roh was forever upsetting apple carts, not least his own. Within weeks of becoming president, he wondered aloud if he were up to the job and suggested a referendum. In March 2004 he got one – as the first South Korean president ever to be impeached. A popular backlash in his favour then gave his party a majority in elections in April. In May the constitutional court threw out his impeachment. Roh, and Korea, recovered from an unnerving rollercoaster ride largely of his own making.

“Thus it continued. In 2007, as his term drew to a close, after years of antagonising the right Roh startled friend and foe alike by proposing an alliance with the conservative opposition. They rejected it. Their candidate, Lee Myung-bak, a former Hyundai chief executive and mayor of Seoul, won a landslide in December 2007's presidential election – over a centre-left which, by then, was desperate to distance itself from Roh, seen as a bungling liability.”

Scandals Involving Roh Moo-hyun

Only three months after taking office in 2003, Roh’s brother was involved in a real estate scandal. He came into possession of millions of dollars of land that seemed a little suspicious for a man who claimed to be a village farmer. The allegations were particularly embarrassing for Roh due to his past as a corruption fighter. Some accused him of getting the real estate in his brother’s name. Roh had to go on television, saying he had done nothing illegal. Privately he expressed doubts about whether he was up to the job.

In October 2003, two aides of Roh Moo-hyun wee arrested for taking illegal campaign money in the 2002 election. One of his closest aides, Choi Do Sool, was accused of taking US$1million in bribes from the SK Group, South Korea’s third largest chaebol.

Roh Moo-hyun suggested holding a referendum on whether or not he should continue governing and promised to step down if he lost. Roh said “If the amount of our illegal funds is more than one tenth of” his opponents, “I will resign from my presidential post.” Questions about the legality of such a referendum were raised and the referendum was never held.

Roh Moo-hyun Impeached

In March 2004, Roh was impeached amidst high drama. During the sessions in which Roh was impeached, legislators got into fist fights, threw their shoes at speakers, threw podiums and broke into tears and loud wails. The stock market fell by five percent. The military was put on alert. It was the first time that a South Korean president was impeached.

The forty-seven members of the pro-Roh Uri Party tried to commandeer the National Assembly Podium and stop the vote and then announced they would resign en mass in protest.. Roh supporters, who felt the president been treated unfairly, gathered in large protests. One supporter set himself on fire. Another tried to drive his car up the stairs of legislature building and into the building.

Under South Korean law after an impeachment motion has been approved, 1) the President is suspended from his duties, including those of commander in chief of the military, and the prime minister acts as president; and 2) a constitutional court hears the case and has 180 days to approve or reject the ouster. At least six of the nine judges voted for impeachment. If the impeachment fails the president resumes his duties. If the impeachment is approved the president is dismissed and a new presidential election is held within 60 days. Roh was able to continue living in the Blue House and keep his security detail.

The matters over which Roh was impeached were relatively minor. The impeachment drive was led by the opposition Grand National and Millennium Democratic Parties. They cited three reason for the impeachment: 1) Roh’s violation of election laws; 2) corruption scandals surrounding his aids: and 3) mismanagement of the economy. The trigger for the impeachment vote was an accusation that Roh broke election laws by campaigning for the Uri Party. A commission on the matter ruled that Roh indeed had broke the law but the infraction was minor and did not warrant criminal charges. Roh angered his opponents for not apologizing on the matter.

In May 2004, Roh’s impeachment was overturned. Richard Spencer wrote in The Telegraph:” In a remarkable political comeback, Roh was returned to office when a constitutional court overturned a vote to impeach him by his Right-wing opponents. Mr Roh now has an unimpeded hand to pursue the most Left-wing agenda the country has yet seen, including controversial detente policies towards North Korea. Since his impeachment two months ago, the parties that voted for him to be removed have been swept from their commanding position in the National Assembly, to be replaced by an inexperienced but enthusiastic party formed from Mr Roh's personal fan base only last year. [Source: Richard Spencer, The Telegraph, 15 May 2004

Roh Moo-hyun’s Foreign Policy and Relations with the U.S.

Relations with Japan were strained in early 2005 over the ownership of some small islands known as "Dokdo" in Korean and "Takeshima" in Japanese and over Japanese school history textbooks that downplayed Japan's actions during World War II. There was also animosity of Comfort Women Issue (the use of Korean sex slaves by Japan in World War II) and visits by Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to the Japanese war dead, with memorials for Japanese war criminals.

Roh promised to continue Kim Dae Jung’s sunshine policy, which lived on as the “peace and prosperity” initiative. In an early visit to the United States, Roh backed off from statements he made during the campaign and affirmed the strong relationship between Seoul and Washington. There were some disagreement between the hawkish position of Washington on North Korea and softer more conciliatory approach from Seoul.

Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post: At a packed news conference, a formidable coalition of retired South Korean military officers and former defense ministers issued a dire warning. They declared the half-century-old military alliance between South Korea and the United States in danger of falling apart, resting the blame squarely at the feet of President Roh Moo Hyun. They pointed to Roh's determination to regain wartime command of South Korea's military as early as possible. South Korea ceded that authority to the United States during the Korean War, and has since vested such power in a series of American generals who have headed the joint command here. [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, August 29, 2006]

“The system, in part, has ensured the intervention of U.S. troops still stationed in the South in the event that communist North Korea launches another invasion. But with a wave of ethnic Korean nationalism sweeping over the South, and with the North now viewed in kinder terms here, Roh has fostered public support for doing away with that system. He has called reclaiming full command from the United States the "core of a self-reliant national defense," adding that South Koreans who believed their military wasn't yet up to the task lacked "self-respect."

“"President Roh is effectively saying that South Korea really doesn't need America the way we have all these years, and I can't blame the Americans for saying, 'Fine, have it your way,' " said Song Young Sun, a legislator with the opposition Grand National Party. "He wants to move South Korea away from the United States and closer to North Korea. And what we are saying is that this is just not a safe or smart thing to do."

“The Bush administration has sought to pressure North Koreans back to negotiations, cracking down on Pyongyang's suspected counterfeiting and money-laundering operations by persuading international financial institutions not to do business with the country. That policy has been directly at odds with South Korea's approach of broad economic engagement. Hoping to bring the North out of its communist shell, the South has poured billions of dollars into tourism and industrial projects just across the border.

“Roh administration officials have repeatedly suggested that the threat posed by North Korea has been exaggerated. U.S. officials say the difference in threat perception may be one reason Seoul and Washington are now mired in a series of squabbles over the realignment of U.S. forces in South Korea, including delays in the creation of a new bombing range as well as toughened environmental oversight by South Korean regulators. These days, the Roh administration has begun to view a more assertive Japan — Washington's closest ally in Asia — as posing more of a long-term threat to Seoul's national security than North Korea.”

Roh Moo-hyun and North Korea

Aidan Foster-Carter wrote in The Guardian: Roh’s “finest hour came in October 2007. Solemnly walking across the Demilitarised Zone, he drove on to Pyongyang for a summit with leader Kim Jong-il, whose results belied low expectations, launching wide-ranging business deals with the north. For a few months the two Koreas met daily. Roh's successor, Lee, junked all this, just as in 2003 Bush brusquely ditched Bill Clinton's outreach to North Korea.” [Source: Aidan Foster-Carter, The Guardian, May 25, 2009]

Following the election, when North Korea moved to resume its nuclear weapons program, the South pursued a more conciliatory course than that of the United States, and strongly opposed any military action against the North. According to AFP: “Roh's policy of engagement with North Korea came in for criticism after its missile launches and nuclear test in 2006. But he refused to abandon the approach and held a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in 2007. 'The key to the peace strategy is the wisdom of co-existence. We should boldly and confidently engage North Korea. Confrontation will achieve nothing,' Roh said. [Source: AFP, May 23, 2009]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: Prior to Roh’s election, “it was revealed that North Korea was secretly developing a program to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons. Relations between North Korea and the United States were tense in 2002 and 2003, as the United States maintained North Korea should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and the North asserted it had the right to do so to provide for its defense and security. Roh took the position that North Korea's move to develop nuclear weapons and export missiles could only be countered by dialogue. This put him at odds with some in the Bush administration, who held that the United States would not be "blackmailed" into negotiating with the North. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“In June 2003, the United States announced it would redeploy some of its 37,000 troops in South Korea to positions south of the DMZ, in an effort to create more agile and mobile forces. South Korea is also an integral part of the six-state team that meets periodically to assess North Korean nuclear ambitions. Roh's attempts to engage North Korea came under increasing attack since North Korea admitted to having a uranium-enrichment program as well as nuclear reactors. Relations between the two countries warmed slightly in 2005 due to an increase in joint sports matches. Growing cultural contacts helped improve Pyongyang's image in the South. The younger generation in South Korea does not hold as stringent anticommunist ideals as the older generation and there is growing public support to provide economic aid to North Korea.

Roh Moo-hyun Visits North Korea

In October 2007, the Second inter-Korean summit held was held in Pyongyang after President Roh Moo-hyun becomes the first South Korean leader to walk across the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South. Talks with Kim Jong-il launched a wide-range of business deals with the north. For a few months the two Koreas met daily. [Source: Aidan Foster-Carter, The Guardian, May 25, 2009]

Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian: “The leaders of North and South Korea shook hands in Pyongyang at the start of the second ever summit between the two countries. A glum-looking Kim Jong-il, wearing his trademark olive-green tunic and platform shoes to make him look taller, greeted the visiting South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, in front of cheering crowds and a military guard of honour. Mr Roh is the first president to make the 125-mile drive between Seoul and Pyongyang. His predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, flew to the North Korean capital for the previous summit, in 2000. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, October 2, 2007]

“The meeting - which comes almost exactly a year after the North tested its first nuclear weapon - is the latest in a series of recent breakthroughs to have eased tensions along one of the world's most heavily-militarised borders. However, excitement was noticeably less than at the first summit between the two sides. In televised images of the meeting, Mr Kim appeared reserved compared with the ebullient Mr Roh. Neither made any public comment. The North Korean crowd waved pink and red plastic flowers and cheered on cue when Mr Kim arrived, repeating the greeting minutes later as Mr Roh stepped from an open car supplied by North Korea.

“Expectations for the talks are considerably lower than they were in 2000, but Mr Roh has said he wants to "hasten the slow march" towards reconciliation. Stopping at the border, the South Korean leader vowed to break down the barriers erected after the bloody 1950-53 Korean war. Making a symbolic step across the military demarcation line, he said: "This line is the wall that has left our nation divided for half a century. Because of this wall, our nation has suffered so much pain. "Our people have suffered from too many hardships, and development has been held up due to this wall. I will make efforts to make my walk across the border an occasion to remove the forbidden wall and move toward peace and prosperity."

“The crossing took place in an area that has been the focus of both conflict and reconciliation. The yellow-taped border was a short distance away from the village of Panmunjom. South Korean authorities have already put up a stone monument to mark the spot where Mr Roh crossed the frontier. An inscription on the statue, taken from his handwriting, says: "The road to peace and prosperity." The North Korean city of Kaesong, the site of billions of dollars of South Korean investment in a new industrial complex, is nearby. Critics have accused Mr Roh, who leaves office in February, of conceding too much for the sake of what they claim is a political stunt aimed at bolstering support for his party ahead of December's presidential election.

Roh admitted that after arriving in the North Korean capital and meeting Kim, he was so worried that he couldn't sleep that night. He gave Kim Jong Il a massive package of gifts which included expensive lacquer-ware, ceramic works and a stack of DVDs featuring South Korean movies and television dramas. After the talks, Roh said his discussions with Kim were “candid and frank.” but admitted there were several disagreements between the two men and a “wall of distrust''.

Impact of the Kim Jong Il-Roh Moo-hyun Summit

A number of agreements were made at of the Kim Jong Il-Roh Moo-hyun summit. For the most part they were significant but short-lived. Reuters reported: “The leaders of North and South Korea pledged to seek talks with China and the United States to formally end the 1950-1953 Korean War and resume freight train services severed during the war.” The following are some of the points the leaders agreed on. [Source: Reuters, Oct 4, 2007; South Korean Government Information Agency]

1) Permanent Peace: The two leaders pledged to seek summit talks somewhere near the Korean peninsula with China and the United States to formally declare the Korean War over. The armistice that suspended the war was signed by China, the North and U.S.-led United Nations forces, but not by South Korea. The two sides reaffirmed pledges of non-aggression.

2) High-Level Talks: The two states will hold a meeting of defence ministers in November to discuss ways to prevent armed clashes. The prime ministers from the two sides will meet in November in Seoul to discuss the implementation of Thursday's agreement. The leaders of the two states will meet frequently to discuss any pending issues. The first summit was held in 2000.

3) Economic Cooperation: The North and South will establish a special district in the North Korean west-coast port city of Haeju and set up a regular maritime transport service with the South and a joint fishing ground. The two sides will step up expansion of the Kaesong industrial park just north of the heavily armed border where 44 South Korean firms are in operation now using cheap North Korean labour and real estate.

4) Trains and Highway: The leaders called for the resumption of regular freight train services between the South Korean border down of Munsan and Kaesong. The two states will repair the highway joining the North Korean capital and Kaesong and refurbish the railway between Kaesong and Sinuiju on the North's border with China.

5) Tourism and Air Travel: The two sides will operate direct tour flights between Seoul and Mount Paektu on the North Korean border with China.

6) Joint Olympic Cheering Squad: North and South Korea will send a joint cheering squad to the 2008 Summer Olympic games by train joining Seoul and Sinuiju in its inaugural run.

Roh Moo-hyun’s Resigns as His Party’s Leader

In February 2007, Roh resigned as the leader of his party.Anna Fifield wrote in the Financial Times: Roh resigned “from the disintegrating Uri party, freeing it to campaign afresh in this December’s elections. Mr Roh’s resignation does not alter his status as the country’s leader – he still has a year left in office – but he said it would free the leftwing Uri party from its association with him in the months until the next presidential election. “I have long hesitated about leaving the Uri party amid heated debate about it within the party. I finally decided to leave in order to help eliminate intra-party conflict,” Roh said. [Source: Anna Fifield, Financial Times, February 23, 2007]

“It has become traditional for South Korean leaders to quit the governing party in their final year in office – Mr Roh’s three immediate predecessors did the same. “My predecessors were forced to defect from the ruling party in their final year in office. I regret failing to overcome the structural problem of the nation’s political community,” the president reportedly said.

South Korea’s domestic political scene is famously volatile and Mr Roh’s announcement had been well flagged. The Uri party has been mired in infighting – 23 lawmakers quit the party last month, reducing it to second-biggest in the National Assembly – and the president had repeatedly said he was prepared to leave.

However, it will further entrench the widely held belief that Mr Roh is now a lame duck leader. Mr Roh regularly attracts only single-digit approval ratings and analysts say he has a knack of making good ideas – such as his plan to amend the constitution so future presidents can serve two terms – seem bad. His exit will allow the Uri party to sever its ties with Mr Roh and will enable it to criticise him and his policies, perhaps boosting its chances in the election. Uri’s potential candidates are scoring between 1 and 5 per cent in the polls, compared with the 40 and 20 per cent ratings of the conservative Grand National party’s two leading candidates. The presidency is widely expected to return to a conservative, business-friendly leader next year.

Roh Moo-hyun’s Suicide

Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide at the age of 62 in May 2009, just 15 months after leaving office, by leaping from a cliff near his home. Justin McCurry wrote in The Guardian: South Korea was in a state of shock following the suicide of Roh Moo-hyun, Roh died from massive head injuries after leaping into a ravine while on a climbing trip near his home in Bongha village. Roh left a suicide note in which he hinted at ill health and talked of being unable to confront "countless agonies down the road". The note, the text of which was released by the Yonhap news agency, said: "The rest of my life would only be a burden for others. I can't do anything because I'm not healthy. I can't read books, nor can I write. Don't be too sad. Isn't life and death all part of nature? Don't be sorry. Don't blame anybody. It's fate. Please cremate me. And please leave a small tombstone near home. I've long thought about that." Local reports said that Roh had left home early yesterday to climb a nearby peak with a bodyguard and fell 20 to 30 metres after jumping from a cliff known as Owl Rock. He was taken to Busan University Hospital but pronounced dead at around 9.30am local time. [Source: Justin McCurry, The Guardian, May 24, 2009]

Roh was left abandoned for about 30 minutes after he threw himself off a cliff. Kim Rahn wrote in the Korea Times: “Officers at the Gyeongnam Provincial Police Agency said that they suspect Roh leapt off the cliff to his death in the absence of his bodyguard contrary to the latter's initial testimony. The guard, who followed Roh initially testified that they stayed at Owl Rock for about 25 minutes from 6:20am, with Roh asking for a cigarette. He said he was unable to prevent Roh jumping off the cliff as the former President diverted his attention by inquiring about the approach of a hiker nearby. [Source: Kim Rahn, Korea Times, May 27, 2009]

“But after further inquiries, police found that the guard was absent when Roh threw himself off the cliff. They arrived at the rock around 6:00am, and Roh asked for a cigarette. At 6:14am, Roh instructed him to check whether the head monk of a nearby temple, named Jeongtowon, was present. The temple, about 200 meters away from the rock, is where the mortuary tablets for his deceased parents are enshrined. The guard came back about three minutes later, only to find Roh missing. He searched for the former President and found him at 6:45am “We suspect Roh jumped to his death between 6:14am and 6:17am while the guard was on the errand. So the injured Roh was left alone for about 30 minutes,'' Lee Woon-wu, chief of the agency, said.

“The communication record between the guard and other security team member backed up the latest testimony, he said. The bodyguard changed his statement several times at one point he claimed to have passed the temple together with Roh, while saying later that he went there alone at Roh's request. “The guard said he lied from shock and a guilty conscience for not protecting the former President and expected punishment, as he has been trained to guard the target of protection at the risk of his own life. He said he changed his mind and told the truth after colleagues persuaded him too, and following criticism of the lie,'' Lee said. The guard said after finding Roh at the foot of the cliff, he called the security team to get a car. He checked Roh's pulse, carried him on his back to flat ground nearby and performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. After the car arrived, they transferred him to a hospital.

Kim Rahn and Park Si-soo wrote in the Korea Times: Roh “After the fall, Roh was immediately taken to a nearby small hospital around 7am, but he was unconscious and in a serious condition with multiple fractures and serious brain injuries. He was later transferred to the larger Pusan National University Hospital in Yeongsan, South Gyeongsang Province. Despite life-saving efforts, he passed away from brain damage at 9:30am, hospital officials and police said. Roh's wife Kwon Yang-sook passed out at the hospital after the confirmation of his death. According to news reports, Roh had skipped meals and spent hours alone over the past three days. [Source: Kim Rahn, Park Si-soo, Korea Times, May 23, 2009]

Roh Moo-hyun’s Situation at the Time of His Suicide

Aidan Foster-Carter wrote in The Guardian: “Scorning Seoul, Roh retired to a new house in his native village, where he grew organic rice, drank with the locals and blogged. In recent months this idyll darkened. A bribery scandal involving a Pusan shoemaker, Park Yeon-cha, was said to implicate Roh's family. On 7 April Roh admitted his wife took money from Park to settle a debt. On 30 April he was driven to Seoul for a grilling that lasted until the small hours. Amid rumours from a suspiciously leaky prosecutor's office that Roh solicited US$6m from Park, he feared indictment, humiliation and jail. His death has halted this; but the full truth may now never be known.” [Source: Aidan Foster-Carter, The Guardian, May 25, 2009]

AFP reported: “The corruption probe centred around a payment worth one million dollars to Roh's wife from a wealthy shoemaker, and a payment by the same man worth five million dollars to the husband of one of Roh's nieces. Roh, who was questioned as a suspect by prosecutors on April 30, had apologised for his family’s involvement in the case but had not admitted personal wrongdoing. 'I feel ashamed before my fellow citizens,' he said at the time. 'I am sorry to have disappointed you.'” [Source: AFP, May 23, 2009]

Despite the corruption charges, reports said Roh had been leading a quiet life and was often seen around the village, smoking cigarettes and drinking with locals. More than 500,000 people showed up for Roh’s funeral. Police in riot gear were called in to help move the crush of mourners that prevented the hearse from leaving the capital for a few hours. After his death, about 1 million mourners made the pilgrimage to his rural hometown to pay their respects, and some 2 million more visited mourning sites set up across the nation, reports said. [Source: Justin McCurry, The Guardian, May 24, 2009; Kwang-Tae Kim and Jean H. Lee,, Associated Press, May 30, 2009]

Associated Press reported: Police dispatched some 21,000 officers to quell any protests by Roh supporters who accuse conservative political opponents led by President Lee Myung-bak of driving the liberal ex-leader to his death with the bribery investigation...Roh supporters refused to let” members of “the ruling Grand National Party pay their respects in Bongha, with some dousing politicians with water and pelting them with eggs. Roh supporters have called the probe against him "political revenge," and posters accusing Lee of driving Roh to his death plastered the walls of one Seoul subway station. "I've never been so ashamed of being a citizen of this country — a country that kills its own president," said Won Seung-tae, 52, of Seoul. "It feels like we've lost all respect in pushing each other to extremes."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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