[Korea’s 60th Anniversary Special Contributions]A second look at Roh Tae-wooRoh Tae-woo, from my foreign perspective, deserves a more sympathetic and positive evaluation than he has thus far received from his fellow citizens.
In 1987, the heavy-handed presidency of Chun Doo Hwan was coming to an end. Violent street demonstrations took place demanding that future presidents be elected directly by popular vote. The country wanted an end to military leadership and manipulated elections. President Chun arranged for Roh Tae-woo, a former general, to be the nominee of the ruling party.
Shortly thereafter, in late June 1987, Roh made a speech that signaled the end of authoritarian rule in Korea. Roh stated that the Korean people, for the first time since the presidential election of 1972, would be able to vote directly for their candidate of choice.
As president, Roh moved quickly to change the atmosphere in South Korea. Press censorship diminished rapidly, and the national focus shifted to the 1988 Olympic Games, which ran peacefully and efficiently in a variety of handsome sites along the Han River. South Korea’s international image suddenly changed from that of a country constantly threatened by war to one that could successfully plan and host major international conferences and festivals.
In establishing his administration, Roh made a key decision that was central to many of the successes he achieved in his presidency. He appointed as his national security adviser Kim Chong Hwi, an American-educated professor at Korea’s National Defense University. President Roh kept Kim in place for his entire five-year term. This gave his foreign policy a sense of direction and continuity that has not been matched by some of Korea’s other presidents.
The highly successful 1988 Olympic Games brought home to the Roh administration a deep anomaly in South Korea’s international position. Many of the countries that were happy to send their athletes to compete in Seoul did not recognize South Korea diplomatically. Neither China nor the Soviet Union recognized South Korea, and only one country from Eastern Europe had an embassy in Seoul. South Korea was not a member of the United Nations, nor was North Korea, and China had adamantly opposed Seoul’s entry into the UN.
Roh decided to make the establishment of diplomatic relations with all Korea’s neighbors, entry into the United Nations and the start of some sort of dialogue with North Korea the central objectives of his presidency.
Germany’s former chancellor, Willy Brandt, was a greatly admired figure in South Korea, and his astute diplomatic maneuvers in bringing about the establishment of diplomatic ties between East and West Germany had been closely observed. Brandt had called his diplomacy Ostpolitik, and Roh, tipping his hat to Brandt, called his plan Nordpolitik.
In Oct. 1989, Brandt visited South Korea. He visited the DMZ and was visibly shocked by what he had seen. Describing the DMZ as “a time warp,” Brandt said he felt that it was a far worse barrier than the Berlin Wall. He was of the opinion that Korean unification would be a more difficult and demanding process - because the DMZ was such a hermetic barrier - than the German reunification process would be after the removal of the Berlin Wall. Asked when he thought the Berlin Wall would come down, Brandt’s response was: “Not in my lifetime.”
In fact the Berlin Wall came down less than 60 days later. I believe that seminal event also contributed to President Roh’s determination to pursue Nordpolitik with the greatest possible speed.
A key ingredient in implementing Nordpolitik was the strong support Roh received from U.S. President George H.W. Bush. The two presidents first met in October 1989 in Washington, D.C., and their relationship got off to a strong start. Roh was anxious to gain diplomatic recognition from the Soviet Union and China, and important groundwork was laid during that October meeting.
President Bush had met Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev several years earlier and had a well-established relationship with him. He was also familiar with the Chinese leadership, [and] was fully supportive of Roh’s objectives.
On June 4, 1990, Roh met Gorbachev in San Francisco, at a meeting that Bush had helped to arrange. Two days later, Roh met with Bush in Washington to discuss further diplomatic steps to be taken. As a result, Seoul and Moscow announced formal diplomatic relations on Dec. 30, 1990. Chinese recognition of South Korea followed in 1992, again with strong American support. Washington also worked to get China to drop its long-standing opposition to either North or South Korea joining the United Nations. Both Koreas are active UN members today.
My term as U.S. ambassador to Seoul started in September 1989. One month after my arrival, six Korean college students broke into the embassy residence and did extensive damage before being arrested by Korean police. The students were acting in protest against American pressure to open the Korean beef market to foreign imports. (This is still a difficult issue 19 years later.)
In 1989, South Korea and the U.S. were becoming increasingly concerned about a nascent nuclear weapons program in North Korea. In discussions with national security adviser Kim Chong-hwi, it became clear to us both that the unacknowledged but widely known presence of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea would make it very difficult to pursue a policy of denuclearization in North Korea. We both recognized that as soon as pressure was applied to North Korea about its secret nuclear weapons program, the presence of U.S. weapons in the South would become an issue.
A highly sensitive but extremely sensible series of discussions then took place over the next several months involving the Blue House, the U.S. Embassy, two successive commanders of U.S. Forces Korea, and the Department of State. About 12 months later, President Bush announced that all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons were being withdrawn from deployment outside the U.S. continent. On Dec. 18, 1991, Roh announced that there were no nuclear weapons in South Korea.
This announcement was made at the same time that North and South Korea were signing two major agreements: A “Basic Agreement” designed to open the way to “reconciliation, nonaggression, exchanges and cooperation,” and a “Joint Declaration” calling for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
These two agreements, though neither has been fully implemented, are still significant parts of the process of healing between Seoul and Pyongyang and stand as monuments to the effectiveness and sagacity of Roh’s presidency. During his tenure, eight inter-Korean prime ministerial meetings were held, and the prospects of significant North?South reconciliation reached a higher level than ever before.
Roh also demonstrated his commitment to the U.S.?Korea alliance by the strong support he extended to the U.S. as it prepared to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1990. Korea was the most generous Asian supporter of the Desert Shield/Desert Storm operation, far surpassing Japan.
By the end of Roh’s term as president, Nordpolitik had succeeded beyond all expectations. Russia, China and virtually every country in Eastern Europe had recognized Seoul. Russian President Boris Yeltsin came to Seoul shortly after President Bush’s visit and opened a new era in relations between Seoul and Moscow.
The number of key events that took place during President Roh’s term in office is striking.
The Olympics were successfully conducted and vastly enhanced Korea’s international reputation. American tactical nuclear weapons were quietly removed from South Korea, enhancing the chances for improved North?South dialogue. Russia, China and many Eastern European countries established embassies in Seoul. Both North and South Korea joined the United Nations. Relations between North and South Korea achieved new levels of mutual agreement that was translated into exchanges. Lastly, Korea enhanced its standing as a strong U.S. ally by its exemplary support to Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
Why then, is President Roh held in such low esteem today by the South Korean people?
A major contributing factor is that both Roh and his predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan, were jailed during the presidency of Kim Young-sam for financial irregularities - particularly the accumulation of huge “slush funds”- during their terms.
It is very difficult for a foreigner to completely fathom why Koreans feel as they do about their presidents. The answer lies in the hearts and minds of the Korean people, and they have never been asked in a systematic way to express their feelings.
My central speculation about Roh’s lack of popularity centers on the fact that the Korean people find him to be an anomalous figure. He was a general, elected at a time when Koreans were yearning for civilian rule. This placed a cloud over Roh’s presidency from its very beginning.
But then, Roh did not act like a general. He did not shout or bluster, and stressed the powers of diplomacy in his Nordpolitik policy. There were no major crises during his presidency. Relations with Washington were excellent, and Korea’s economy continued to expand. The election of Kim Young-sam in late 1992 ran smoothly, and the transition from military to civilian rule in South Korea was successfully completed.
One of Roh’s major achievements as president was the progress made toward reconciliation with North Korea, which had reached a high water mark at the end of 1991. Tragically, this progress was not maintained.
Later events now serve to obscure from Koreans’ collective memory the great progress that was made between Seoul and Pyongyang during Roh’s presidency. Koreans now remember the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae-jung, and the first North?South summit meeting held in June 2000.
While I am not at all confident in assessing why Roh Tae-woo is not more respected than he is, I feel quite confident in asserting that over time his standing in the history of modern Korea will rise significantly.
As time passes and perspectives lengthen, I am sure that Roh Tae-woo will come to be seen as a quietly effective president who smoothly shepherded Korea from military to civilian rule, strengthened the U.S.?Korea alliance and left his country in far better shape than it was when he took office.
As an admiring foreigner who has been engaged with Koreans since 1952, I believe that the three presidents who have done most to bring South Korea to its present powerful position are Park Chung Hee, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Tae-woo.
*Donald Phinney Gregg was the United States ambassador to Korea from1989 to 1993. While ambassador, his efforts were directed toward helping the U.S.-Korea relationship mature from a military alliance into an economic and political partnership. In his 43-year career in government Gregg served in the Central Intelligence Agency and later as national security adviser to Vice President George H.W. Bush. In retirement, he became the president and chairman of The Korea Society.
by Donald P. Gregg
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The Republic of Korea at 60
A second look at Roh Tae-woo