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Roh Tae Woo : South Korea's President Wants a Polity to Match Its Economy

June 23, 1991|Sam Jameson | Sam Jameson is the Tokyo bureau chief for The Times. He interviewed Roh Tae Woo in the president's office early last week

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — When authoritarian President Chun Doo Hwan anointed Roh Tae Woo as his successor, to run in a rubber-stamp election for president of South Korea, in June, 1987, he hardly seemed likely to lead the country into democracy. Both Roh and Chun are ex-generals, and Roh had supported Chun in his 1980 coup. During Chun's repressive presidency, Roh stood by his friend, serving in various Cabinet posts and, for a period, heading the 1988 Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee.

On the day Chun formalized Roh as his choice, South Korean students launched street demonstrations that won the support of the middle class and threatened to deprive Seoul of the international prestige of the '88 Olympiad. But, on June 29, Roh stunned the nation by pledging to support a direct election of the president and, if elected, to carry out a democratization of South Korea. He threatened to resign as a candidate if Chun refused his recommendations. Chun accepted, calm returned to the streets and, in a December, 1987 election, the people elected Roh by a 37% plurality--the opposition ran three candidates against him and so split the field.

Now widespread, if still imperfect, reform has been carried out in South Korea. But public discontent with politics and his with new ruling party continues--as Roh admitted during an extensive conversation on the eve of his trip to the United States on June 29. Labor strife marred the first two years of Roh's administration. Trade deficits have returned, alarming a nation that, since an economic takeoff began in the 1960s, has equated exports with growth.

Continuing is a bitter parochial enmity that psychologically divides the nation east and west--even as the country remains physically separated north and south. Political analysts say regional antipathy between Koreans of the southwest Cholla region--the birthplace of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung--and the southeast Kyongsang region--Roh's native home--supersedes all other issues in Korean politics. As the constitutional limit of one term for Roh approaches--in February, 1993--parochialism again threatens to color a presidential election.

Meanwhile, more than 1.5 million armed forces of the communist North and the capitalist South confront each other along a demilitarized zone 25 miles north of Seoul, with some 43,000 U.S. troops standing guard as a symbol of the U.S. commitment to Seoul's security.

Only in diplomacy has Roh achieved unblemished triumphs--staging of the Olympics, establishment of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and East Europe, exchanges of trade offices with consular functions with China, and a now assured entry into the United Nations next fall.

An impeccable dresser, Roh, 58, speaks softly and slowly, by Korean standards, but in a relaxed manner, usually with a smile on his face. He held a felt pen in his right hand while talking but never used it. A pile of notes prepared by his aides sat on a table beside him. Roh never looked at them.

Question: You cited eight specific reforms in your June 29, 1987, declaration promising to bring democracy to Korea. Which has been implemented most successfully?

Answer: . . . . One of the most moving experiences for me was to see realized the people's desire to elect the president with their own hands and to see the release of politicians and others who were imprisoned because of their conviction (that the president should be elected directly). Not only were they given an amnesty. They were permitted to run for political office. (By their release, including freedom for opposition leader Kim Dae Jung), I didn't gain anything as the ruling party's candidate. But my mind was set at ease, and we had a free election. That was one of the best achievements.

Q: Which least successfully?

A: . . . . I emphasized that authoritarianism . . . should be removed and that we should renovate both the system and the way of thinking that then prevailed. In my inaugural speech, I asked political leaders and government officials not to turn me into a Don Quixote. I emphasized the need for a completely fresh way of thinking . . . . Although the authority of the president should be preserved, authoritarianism should be eliminated.

Therefore, I told officials of the government and the ruling party to delegate as much authority as possible to provincial and local government authorities. What rightfully belongs to legislatures should be entrusted to legislatures. What rightfully belongs to the judiciary should be returned to the judiciary, so that voluntarism would spring up from all corners of the country . . . .

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