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'Roh Tempest' Blows Across South Korea

Politics: With a surprise showing in new U.S.-style primaries, an obscure, left-leaning lawyer has become the front-runner in presidential polls.


INCHON, South Korea — In a boisterous new experiment with U.S.-style primaries, a relatively unknown human rights lawyer has emerged as the front-runner to succeed Kim Dae Jung as president of South Korea.

Defying all predictions, 56-year-old lawyer Roh Mu Hyun has surged in polls in the last few weeks and is now shown as beating his closest rival by 11 to 26 percentage points. So precipitous has his rise been that the political pundits have nicknamed the phenomenon the Roh poong--the Roh tempest.

Although it is still early in the campaign--the election is scheduled for Dec. 19--Roh's sudden emergence turns much of the conventional wisdom about South Korean politics on its head. It had been widely assumed that the next president would be conservative opposition leader Lee Hoi Chang, who would likely put the brakes on Kim's Nobel Peace Prize-winning "sunshine policy" of dialogue with North Korea.

Roh is widely considered the most left-leaning of half a dozen contenders for the presidency. A self-educated lawyer from Pusan, he made his mark representing students and workers in the 1980s struggles against South Korea's military dictatorship. As recently as 1990, he supported calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, a stance that practically defines the left in the country.

Los Angeles Times Thursday May 2, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
South Korean candidate: An April 26 story in Section A mistakenly said South Korean presidential candidate Roh Mu Hyun did not attend high school. Roh, a lawyer, did attend high school but not college or law school.

Mindful of his new role as front-runner, Roh says that his views have moderated since his days as a dissident lawyer and that he now supports the presence of the 37,000 troops stationed here.

"I'm not a man of dogma or ideology. You have to make concessions as a responsible politician. If you are too principled, it is not possible to govern. The main principle you have to respect is never to lie," Roh said this month as he sat in a back room at the Inchon University stadium, awaiting the results of the 10th in a series of 16 primaries being held by the ruling Millennium Democratic Party to select its candidate.

A Self-Taught Man

In his first interview since becoming front-runner, Roh said he would follow many of Kim's policies, engaging North Korea in dialogue and, on the domestic front, continuing with privatization and a series of economic reforms.

Roh has a calm and reassuring speaking manner, though his nervous energy is betrayed by hands continually in motion. The third son in a poor family--his father grew persimmons--Roh never attended high school or college but nonetheless passed the bar examination by educating himself. Despite the lack of formal schooling, he has a professorial aura. He has written three books, one of them about his political idol, Abraham Lincoln.

"I am envious of American democracy. I have a very high opinion of the values on which America was founded," he said.

Though Roh is virtually unknown outside South Korea, and in fact has hardly left the country, he gained prominence in Pusan as a human rights lawyer in the 1980s. Among his clients were students who staged a 1982 attack on the U.S. Information Service offices in Pusan to protest American policy on the Korean peninsula; those tortured for protesting the military dictatorship; and a student who was prosecuted for traveling illegally to the North. He was eventually tapped by the political opposition and in 1988 was elected to the National Assembly.

In 1992, however, Roh broke with Kim Young Sam, an opposition figure who later became president. Roh protested that a political deal between Kim and the conservative party then in power was tantamount to a betrayal of principles. The stand cost him politically--he ran for mayor of Pusan in 1995 and lost--but earned him a reputation as that rare species, a politician of principle.

The reputation was enhanced by his personal history. Madly in love with the daughter of a man who had died in prison for his Communist sympathies, he married her in defiance of his family, who warned that the marriage would destroy his career.

"He is known as a man of loyalty. That's more important than experience," said Choo Mi Ae, 43, a former judge who was campaigning for Roh last weekend at the Inchon primary.

Actually what might be most important for Roh is a quirk of South Korean geopolitics: He comes from the Gyeongsang region, where he commands strong support despite the area's reputation for political conservatism, but he also draws a following from the traditionally left-leaning province of Cholla, home of President Kim. Although it sounds trivial, it is the most likely explanation for Roh's meteoric success in a political climate under the sway of regional rivalries that are as fierce as tribal warfare.

Scott Snyder, Seoul representative of the Asia Foundation, calls Roh the first serious presidential candidate who is clearly of the postwar generation, referring to the Korean War, which ended in 1953.

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