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Even Supporters Complain About S. Korean Leader

Roh is criticized for leaving his party and other erratic moves, and his ratings have plunged. His strength seems to lie in foreign policy.

October 05, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — In the green-domed headquarters of the South Korean legislature, politicians have been removing photographs of President Roh Moo Hyun from the walls in recent days.

The president's fall from grace followed his decision last week to resign from South Korea's ruling party, which had helped him land a stunning dark-horse victory in last year's election. The resignation is just one of a number of erratic moves by the 57-year-old Roh in his brief but eventful seven months in office.

The maverick labor lawyer has filed libel suits against leading newspapers for stories about his family's real estate dealings and disparaged South Korean journalists as corrupt hacks who only want to be wined and dined. He has managed to insult key supporters, telling one group that its members voted for him only because they hated his opponent and therefore didn't deserve his attention.

"He hurts people's feelings. He's careless with his words and expects that people will somehow understand because his intentions are good," said Kim Geun Tae, a member of the National Assembly who still considers himself one of Roh's closest backers.

Opponents have been much harsher.

The Millennium Democratic Party, which Roh left Monday in what has been a messy divorce, put out a statement denouncing his departure as "an act of betrayal."

"It is like President Roh is marrying another woman after dumping his faithful wife as he gets richer," party Chairman Park Sang Cheon said of the split.

Many presidents complain of fickle electorates, but Roh's approval ratings have practically tumbled off a precipice -- from more than 90% in the heady days around his Feb. 25 inauguration to the 20s and 30s.

"There is one school of thought that he is learning on the job and another that he was never up to the job to begin with," said a Western diplomat who requested anonymity.

Roh was unlikely presidential material from the start. In a country where school ties are paramount, he'd never attended college or law school, having educated himself at home. Before becoming president, his only administrative experience was an eight-month stint as minister for maritime affairs and fisheries. He had barely ventured outside South Korea -- inspiring quips that he came to office less well-traveled than any recent head of state other than President Bush.

At the time of the inauguration, naysayers predicted that Roh would make a muddle of foreign policy. To the contrary, he has steered deftly between his country's most powerful ally, the United States, and the South's armed-to-the-teeth neighbor, North Korea.

Despite an image during the campaign as an anti-American firebrand, Roh patched up relations with the United States. His government has lobbied the Bush administration tirelessly, and with some success, to negotiate with rather than threaten North Korea.

"It's ironic because the criticism you heard the most at first was that he had no foreign policy experience. But that's probably what he's done best," said Peter Hayes, the director of the Nautilus Institute, a Berkeley think tank that follows Korean issues.

On the domestic front, Roh has had it tougher. No sooner had he stepped into office than the economy started reeling from the brunt of the uncertainties about North Korea and its nuclear-weapons program. The former labor lawyer's handling of strikes by truckers and auto workers raised complaints that his government was helping workers win exorbitant raises and eroding South Korea's competitiveness, while some in the business community grumbled darkly that their new president was a "socialist."

The war in Iraq also has put Roh in a bind. His decision last spring to send 700 army medics and engineers to help the U.S. rebuild the Persian Gulf nation eroded his support among left-leaning students who had campaigned enthusiastically for him. The U.S. has asked South Korea to send a larger contingent of combat troops -- a request that, if granted, is likely to cost Roh his remaining support among this key group.

The top item on Roh's agenda from the outset has been to reform the political system, opening up the smoky back rooms to public scrutiny and making the process of selecting candidates more democratic. That has put him at odds with the leaders of the political parties, including his own.

The Millennium Democratic Party was formed by Roh's predecessor, President Kim Dae Jung, and was so uneasy with Roh's candidacy that it tried to dump him a few months before the election, when he was trailing in the polls.

The long-standing tensions broke out in a rowdy exchange of fisticuffs at a party meeting last month, during which one Roh backer was nearly dragged out by her hair. As a result, 43 supporters walked out and formed their own party.

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