The Administration of Roh Tae Woo

The Administration of Roh Tae Woo (1988–1993)

Roh Tae Woo was inaugurated in February 1988 under a new constitu-tion that was the most liberal in Korean history. The military was for-bidden to engage in political activity. The president could stay in office for only one five-year term, and his powers were reduced—he could not dissolve the National Assembly, while the assembly had the power to investigate affairs of state and approve the president’s choices for the Supreme Court.

The National Security Law, which gave the govern-ment broad powers to arrest dissidents and labor leaders, was retained, but in theory the National Assembly’s new powers could act as a break on the ruling party’s abuse of this law. The ANSP, which essentially functioned as South Korea’s secret police, was not dismantled, and there remained suspicions whether the military would accept its new nonpolitical role.

The first test of whether Roh would actually let this new constitution work, even when it thwarted his will, came in April 1988 when for the first time in its history the ruling party failed to win a legislative major-ity. The opposition proceeded to use its newfound power. It rejected Roh’s nominee for chief justice, the first such rejection in Korean history, and launched an investigation into corruption and human rights abuses by Chun Doo Hwan.

An investigation of Chun could be awkward for Roh. Not only were the two close friends who had risen in the ranks together, not only were they leaders from the same party, but Roh owed his position to Chun and Chun’s first crime—the 1979 coup—had been enacted in partnership with Roh.

The hearings, which ran for months, were covered by South Korean radio and television. The New York Times called them “South Korea’s version of the Watergate hearings”: “People crowd around television sets in coffee shops. Taxi drivers keep the radio on all day. Janitors stop work to listen. . . .

Two men on the street get into a shouting match, with one denouncing what he sees as conclusive evidence of corruption and the other criticizing the poor quality of the legislator’s questioning” (Chira 1988). Roh pleaded on Chun’s behalf for clemency, stopped short of pardoning him, and took steps to distance himself from the previous regime by firing members of Chun’s cabinet. He suggested that Chun leave his home and return his embezzled property in exchange for avoiding prosecution.

Chun duly appeared on television on November 23, 1988, apolo-gized to the nation, and said that he would fulfill these conditions. Many, perhaps most, South Koreans wanted retribution from Chun, but the majority in the National Assembly hesitated. Chun Doo Hwan still had powerful friends in the ROK’s military forces. South Korea’s experi-ment in freedom was still new. A coup was not out of the question.

As the hearings continued Chun took refuge in a Buddhist monastery in the mountains east of Seoul. When the investigation ended on February 1, 1989, 47 people had been arrested on charges of corruption or abuse of power, including the former mayor of Seoul, the former construction and transportation ministers, Chang Sedong (who had run the ANSP), and several of Chun’s relatives. Chun, though dis-graced, remained safe in his Buddhist monastery, and Roh Tae Woo had yet to be called to account for his own part in the misdeeds of Chun’s regime.

By early 1988 the newspapers that had been closed by the Chun administration in 1980 reopened, and several new papers had begun circulation. The most notable of the new newspapers in Seoul was the left-leaning Hangyoreh Shinmun. Its name was pure Korean, unlike those of other newspapers, which had Sino-Korean names.

The Hangyoreh was also different in format. Rather than a title block of Chinese char-acters that ran vertically, like all other South Korean newspapers except the Seoul Daily, Hangyoreh ran its title horizontally across the top of the page. In later years all the newspapers changed their formats to follow that of Hangyoreh.

Another measure of the recovered strength of the South Korean press was the flowering of the provincial newspapers. Before 1980 each provincial capital had two newspapers; between 1980 and 1987 each had only one. After 1987 each provincial capital had three daily newspapers. Similarly, the broadcast media began to flourish after 1987. Although TBC, the television station that Chun had closed, did not revive, a new national station, private and independent, was estab-lished, the Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS).

A cable television industry has since developed.The 1988 Olympic Games went smoothly, showcasing South Korea to the world as an example not just of economic development but also of peaceful transition from military to elected government. The Seoul Olympics also stimulated South Korea’s economy, more than paying for themselves.

Roh’s five-year plan (1987–91), the sixth in the series of plans inau-gurated by Park in 1962, pursued many of the same goals of the Chun government, but the international trade climate dictated some domestic changes.

Industries once subsidized by the government were no longer subsidized, and import tariffs that had protected domestic industries were lifted. This exposed domestic products to foreign competition. In return foreign trading partners lifted their own tariffs on imports from South Korea.

The Roh administration enjoyed historic success in the area of diplomacy. In 1990, before the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Roh made history by meeting with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

Setting aside their cold war and Korean War dif-ferences, South Korea and the Soviet Union decided to exchange dip-lomats and normalize relations. This was a great blow to North Korea. Soviet and South Korean ties developed rapidly, leading to large-scale trade between the former enemies.

South Korea also gained UN recognition under the Roh administra-tion. This development was a product of the end of the cold war, which ended with the gradual liberalization of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. Both Koreas had been kept out of the United Nations for four decades by the Security Council vetoes of the Soviet Union (blocking the ROK) and the United States (blocking the DPRK) as well as their irreconcilable claims on one another’s territory.

In 1991 South Korea dropped its claim over the North; North Korea, under pressure from China (now its sole ally), announced that it had “no choice” but to apply for UN membership as well, even though dual membership would be an obstacle to unification. Both countries joined the United Nations that year.

There is no question that the administration of Roh Tae Woo was more democratic than any that Korea had experienced in its history. South Koreans still did not enjoy the freedom of people in a Western democracy, however. The repressive state structures such as the ANSP and repressive laws such as the National Security Law still existed to hem in ROK citizens who might be a threat to the state.

Before he was out of office Roh used them to break up strikes that, Roh said, were threatening to make Korean labor too expensive for the world market. The ROK (like the United States and Japan) was in recession at the time, but Roh, who would later be found to have taken extensive bribes and kickbacks from Korea’s business leaders, blamed his country’s labor movement for South Korea’s slowing growth.

On January 23, 1990, Roh Tae Woo suddenly announced that he had made an alliance with longtime opposition leaders Kim Young Sam and Kim Jong Pil, accomplishing a three-party merger that would create a strong single conservative party similar to the one that had dominated Japan since the end of American occupation.

Even the names were similar: The Japanese governing party was the Liberal Democratic Party; the new Korean coalition was the Democratic Liberal Party. For Roh it was a way to break a deadlock in the National Assembly, which had been dominated by his opposition since shortly after his election. For Kim Young Sam it was a way to leapfrog to the presidency over his rival, Kim Dae Jong of Cholla. Kim joined the government party, and Roh supported his run for president.