Fri, Dec 20, 2002 - Page 9 News List

A radical takes over the Blue House in Seoul

In a neck-and-neck race Kim Dae-jung protege Roh Moo-hyun won Korea's presidential election, to the alarm of governments in the US and Japan

By Rick Chu

Radical left-wing and pro-unification reformer Roh Moo-hyun was elected president of South Korea by a slim margin yesterday -- despite the last-minute political U-turn of his ally, Chung Mong-joon. The US, Japan and other countries were stunned by the results, but it is not surprising that the polarized voters in South Korea made such a choice. Chung's withdrawal from Roh's camp did have an impact, but it was not significant enough to cost Roh the election as previously expected.

The 56-year-old Roh was born in 1946 to a poor farming family in Kimhae, located in the suburbs of Pusan. He graduated from Pusan Commercial High School in 1966 and passed the National Judiciary Examination in 1975. After more than a year as a judge, he quit to begin his private law practice. He became a famous human-rights lawyer after handling several student activist cases. As a high-school graduate who became a lawyer through hard study and made a name for himself, Roh has become an idol of Korean youth -- especially those from poor rural households who cannot enter college.

In 1988, Roh joined Kim Young-sam's camp and was elected a National Assemblyman for Pusan. The National Assembly established a special committee later that year to investigate corruption involving former president Chun Doo-hwan. Thanks to live TV broadcasts, Roh's powerful and logically clear interpellation during the investigation immediately brought him to prominence, making him a political superstar. The audience nationwide cheered him when he angrily threw his wooden nameplate at Chun during an interpellation.

In early 1990, when Kim was bought off by Roh Tae-woo and defected to the then ruling party with his supporters, Roh Moo-hyun left Kim's camp in contempt. After losing several National Assembly elections, he strove to improve his relations with local factions and took the initiative to resolve regional grievances, winning the support of local people in Cholla Province. He then joined Kim Dae-jung's camp and became vice chairman of the then Democratic Party -- which has now become the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP). He also served as minister of maritime affairs and fisheries in the Kim Dae-jung administration from August 2000 to March last year, which until now has been his only administrative experience.

In the ruling MDP's party primaries, Roh Moo-hyun once raised a number of controversial slogans -- such as "nationalize major newspapers," "[push for] the withdrawal of US troops stationed in South Korea," and "abolish the National Security Law." Both the media and the conservatives were stunned by such extremist stances. But Roh stirred up a "Roh fever" nationwide when he was officially nominated by the MDP at the end of April. Surpassing his opponent Lee Hoi-chang, Roh became the most popular presidential candidate.

At that time, both the US and Japanese embassies in South Korea made inquiries about Roh's background and true intentions. Some Japanese diplomats even said that they dared not ask about his global views and his views about Japan, because he once commented that "a key factor in East Asia's security is the resurrection of Japanese militarism" -- a remark that seriously offended the Japanese. Meanwhile, the US obtained intelligence indicating that Roh is even more pro-North Korea than Kim Dae-jung. The incumbent president's "Sunshine Policy" is already a headache for the US. Roh will certainly make the US even more uncomfortable.

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