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A Times correspondent remembers Roh Moo-hyun

Former Seoul Bureau chief Barbara Demick recalls the late former South Korean leader's rise and fall, and sees his suicide as a setback for democracy in the region.

May 30, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — A few days after Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide, I went digging around in my son's toy chest to find the small plush doll of the former South Korean president I'd bought shortly after he was inaugurated.

It was one of many souvenirs for sale at the time -- T-shirts, mugs, clocks, figurines that dangled from cellphones. The one I bought had a suction cup that allowed it to be hung on the inside of a car window.

My son, 3 at the time, was delighted to have his first male doll. Every time he heard television newscasters refer to the president, he thought they were talking about his toy.

But years passed, and I found the doll stuffed next to a broken Harry Potter action figure. It brought home the tragedy of what had happened in South Korea. The 62-year-old Roh jumped off a cliff last Saturday, facing the possibility of imprisonment on corruption charges, disgraced and reviled. What is even more unimaginable is how wildly popular Roh once was among younger South Koreans.

The first time I met Roh, he was campaigning at a sports stadium in Incheon. It was April 2002, and Roh was a dark-horse candidate in South Korea's first presidential primaries. He was sufficiently unimportant that he gave me more than an hour for the interview, which I believe was the first in the U.S. press. We sat on folding chairs in a back room fragrant with sweat, alone except for a Korean colleague who was interpreting. Roh didn't speak a word of English, somewhat unusual for a South Korean professional.

But then, Roh broke the mold in many ways.

He came from a poor rural family. Although he hadn't gone to college or law school, he was able to pass the bar exam through exceptional intelligence and industry. In law practice in the 1980s, when South Korea was still ruled by a military dictatorship, he represented tortured students and protesters who had staged an attack on the U.S. Information Service offices in Busan.

He had a reputation for being anti-American, but in our interview, he waxed on about America and his admiration for Abraham Lincoln, about whom he'd written a book. He quoted liberally from Lincoln. He told me that in order to govern, "the main principle you have to respect is never to lie."

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

I must admit that I was charmed. The night of Dec. 19, 2002, when he won the presidential election, I wrote for the next day's Los Angeles Times:

"In a country where elites zealously guard their power, the man who won South Korea's presidential election is a novelty. A maverick who likes to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln, Roh Moo-hyun beat tremendous odds. . . ."

Although South Korea had held free elections since 1987, there was something more democratic about this one. It was the first time the country had held U.S.-style primaries instead having party politicos choose candidates in the back rooms. Roh had also found a way around the traditionally conservative South Korean news media, using the Internet to take his message directly to "netizens."

Headlines around the world described Roh as the first Internet head of state. He had his own online fan club, Nosamo, Korean for "I love Roh," with 80,000 members, which was remarkable at the time -- keeping in mind that this was back in the old days of 2003, before Facebook and its 6-million-plus fan club for Barack Obama.

"You wouldn't think you'd have young people gushing over a politician, but they were crazy about him," said Hun Un-na, a pro-Roh assemblywoman.

After his inauguration in January 2003, crowds started flocking to his home village to pay tribute, and to study the geomancy of the place. Many superstitious South Koreans thought it might be the lay of the land and of the ancestors' tombs that allowed a penniless boy to become president. It was there I bought the doll.

Only a year later, however, Roh's conservative opponents impeached him on charges that he had violated election laws. He was reinstated by a court, which found the infraction minor.

Although he survived, the public became increasingly disenchanted with Roh's political ineptness and his leaning toward accommodation with North Korea. In the 2007 presidential election, conservatives came into power under the current president, Lee Myung-bak.

Soon, the prosecutors were after him. While he was in office, his family had accepted $6 million from a businessman. Relentless, numbing headlines of "Scandal!" and "Corruption!" make it hard for an outsider to conclude whether or not the money was a bribe.

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