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.
Roh's radical style does not stop here. During an interpellation session at the National Assembly, he made a strong proposal for breaking up local conglomerates, demanding that the government buy up their stocks and distribute them among workers. He also told protesters during a labor-capital dispute that they only needed to abide by the law when there was justice, and that they did not need to abide by the law when justice was absent. That forced upon people's attention his radical left-wing style. To change his image to that of a radical reformist, he later denied or revised many of his past remarks.
Roh's stark ideology is also reflected in his attitude toward the press. He detests the "domineering" mainstream newspapers. Following a lawsuit against the nation's biggest newspaper Chosun Daily, Roh vowed to declare war on the press. Insisting that he would not compromise. He still refuses to give interviews to the daily even now.
His supporters include many Internet-savvy people in their 20s and 30s, most of whom are radical anti-US intellectuals. After his failure in the National Assembly election two years ago, he received a lot of media sympathy and become something of a media darling. Tens of thousands of young supporters formed support groups to spread his political ideas and attract more followers on the Internet.
The young pro-reform forces admire his righteous, sincere and frank personality which makes him fearless in the face of authority and willing to speak for disadvantaged groups. During his tenure as minister of maritime affairs and fisheries, he even publicly criticized his ministry staff for being "muddle-headed."
For South Koreans, the general assessment of Roh is that he is a person with attentiveness, willpower, the ability to survive and a strong historical awareness. He is also a very deft political tactician. These characteristics won him recognition from a majority of constituents.
Following this "conservatism vs. reform" war, however, Roh's victory will certainly have an impact on Northeast Asia. Japan will probably halt its policy of improving ties with North Korea while the US may adopt a wait-and-see attitude or even ignore Roh deliberately until the new president revises his attitude and shows support for US policy. He will follow Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine Policy," showing conciliation, tolerance and support toward the northern neighbor.
But his radical, left-wing, anti-US and nationalist stance will bring him many obstacles and challenges both at home and abroad. He once said, "The country will see no hope if regional grudges are not rooted out." This is why he has spared no efforts in breaking through the barriers formed by South Korea's regional grievances. However, long-standing feuds created by partisan strife throughout history are by no means easy to eradicate without efforts spanning several generations. Roh the trailblazer may end up offending both Kyongsang and Cholla provinces.
A new era led by Roh has now begun in South Korea. His leadership presages plenty of uncertainties both at home and abroad, for both the Korean Peninsula and the whole of East Asia.
Whether bringing Roh's radical style to the Blue House is a blessing or a mishap, the next five years will show.
Rick Chu (朱立熙) is editor in chief of the Taipei Times.