Roh Moo Hyun’s Administration (2003–2008)

Roh Moo Hyun’s Administration (2003–2008)

No less idealistic and ambitious than Kim Dae Jung, Roh proved to be a less skillful politician. His term of office was troubled almost from the outset, and Roh had to expend much of his energy on a struggle for political survival. When Roh took office South Korea’s conservative, right-leaning Grand National Party (GNP) held a plurality of seats and effective control of the National Assembly. In a way, the GNP was the same conservative party that, under different names, had been in control of the National Assembly for more than four decades.

In an attempt to alter this pattern, Roh and his supporters formed the Yeollin Uri Party (“Our Open Party,” often called the Uri Party), a center-left, social-democratic party made up of defectors from the minority Millennium Party and several members of the Grand National Party. The party stood for increased assistance to low-income Koreans, decreased emphasis on economic growth at any cost, engagement with North Korea, and opposition to the U.S. hard-line approach to North Korea.

Roh, while not joining the Uri Party, openly supported it in the run-up to National Assembly elections. If the Uri Party won enough seats, the power of the conservatives would be broken and he would have an ally for his legislative program. His open endorsement of the party was a technical breech of the rules, and his opponents in the National Assembly promptly seized on it to impeach him.

Past presidents of the Republic of Korea had done some terrible things, but none of them had ever been impeached. By a two-thirds majority Roh was stripped of his powers, and the prime minister assumed his powers. Once again the streets of Seoul filled with angry protesters, many wearing yellow scarves that identified them as supporters of the Uri Party and others supporting his impeachment. One Roh supporter set himself on fire.

While South Korea’s Constitutional Court prepared to deliberate the legality of Roh’s impeachment, the people went to the polls again, and they delivered a sharp rebuke to the GNP. The Uri Party won 152 seats, giving it a slender majority in the 299-seat National Assembly.

With other center and left-leaning parties winning a handful of votes, the conservative party was now in the minority. Soon afterward the Constitutional Court overturned Roh’s impeachment, declaring that while Roh had violated a law, his error was not serious enough to warrant his removal from office.

Despite this victory, Roh had a hard time pleasing the South Korean public and often seemed to be caught between the expectations of the right and left. Having run for president by campaigning against U.S. policy, he nevertheless made South Korea a part of U.S. President Bush’s small coalition in the second Gulf War and sent 3,000 ROK troops to fight in Iraq.

With the United States still defending the DMZ between North and South Korea, Roh could hardly refuse, but the move angered many South Koreans who had voted for Roh. U.S. President Bush showed himself visibly cool to Roh because of their differences over North Korea and perhaps also because of their differences of ide-ology, so South Koreans who favored warm relations with the United States were not pleased with Roh either.

His attempts to continue Kim Dae Jong’s Sunshine Policy began to look more and more misguided as North Korea made increasingly aggressive moves in its showdown with the United States, including withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003, test-firing long-range missiles, and detonating a nuclear weapon in 2006.

By the time of South Korea’s next presidential election, none of these issues mattered much, as the country’s economic growth had slowed considerably. Unemployment was high among the young, housing prices were high, and rising labor costs (an unfortunate side effect of a fair distribution of wealth) were making it hard for small and medium-sized businesses to compete with their counterparts in poorer countries.

The economic malaise that marked the end of Roh’s term made it a foregone conclusion that conservatives would win back control of the National Assembly and that a conservative candidate would win the presidency.

Lee Myung Bak, the former mayor of Seoul, was a pragmatic politician who promised stronger ties with the United States and a slower journey toward rapprochement with North Korea. As election time approached Lee had an enormous lead in the polls, so much so that there was not much excitement attached to the election.

As voters in democratic countries often do, South Koreans blamed the majority party for the condition of the economy and threw it out of office.

Voter turnout was low for South Korea, as if its people had begun to take the franchise for granted. That, too, was their right. It is hard to think of any nation whose people have paid a higher cost for it.