In remembrance of RohFormer President Roh Tae-woo (1932-2021) passed away Tuesday. He was a rare head of state in Korea’s presidential history with a soft leadership style. Roh opened the way for democracy in this country after the authoritarian leadership of former presidents Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan, and he led a transitional period at the beginning of the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Roh’s route to the presidency cannot be comprehended without taking into account his predecessor Chun Doo Hwan. As classmates at the Military Academy, they stood at the forefront of the December 12, 1979 coup based on “Hanahoe,” an unofficial private group of military officers headed by Chun. They brutally suppressed the May 18 Gwangju democratization movement the following year. Roh emerged as No. 2 man in the Chun administration and later became the presidential candidate of the ruling party.
A dramatic turning point came in 1987. After accommodating public demands for democratization, Roh promised a Constitutional amendment to adopt the direct presidential election system. (The idea came from Chun, but the transition was impossible without Roh’s acceptance.) In the presidential race later that year, Roh was elected president with 36.7 percent of the votes over the so-called “three Kims”: Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil. After opposition parties became a majority in the National Assembly, Roh’s presidential power diminished, not to mention an outburst of demand for democratization from all sections of our society. But Roh accepted it.
Roh announced a bold plan for reunification of the divided land through consultations with the three Kims. Roh did not care even if the ruling party became a minority in the legislature. In fact, he thanked the people for calling him “Water President” for his distinguished spirit of conformity and reconciliation.
Roh’s successful staging of the 1988 Seoul Olympics was a monumental event showing the amazing transformation of Korea. His decision to establish diplomatic ties with former Communist countries, including the Soviet Union (in 1990) and China (1992), shows his farsightedness as a head of state. In September 1991, South and North Korea simultaneously became members of the United Nations. Three months later, the two Koreas signed the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement on reconciliation, nonaggression and mutual exchanges.
The Roh administration also aggressively pushed massive infrastructure projects, including Incheon International Airport and 2 million apartments. But the scandal over his slush funds left an indelible scar on his reputation. His move to align with opposition parties except one rooted in the Jeolla province also left a blot on his principle of accommodation.
Historians underscore the need to go beyond the simple dichotomy of good and evil if a society wants to see the bigger picture. The same must apply to Roh’s legacy. Requiescat in Pace.