Reevaluating Roh’s legacy
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“I love Germany so much,” wrote the French novelist Francois Mauriac, “that I am glad there are two of them.” This is how Europeans once felt about the country.
It was a miracle of modern history that Germany was reunified before the century of nightmares ended. The secret was unity within West Germany. Chancellors Helmut Schmidt of the liberal Social Democratic Party and Helmut Kohl of the conservative Christian Democratic Union all agreed to name Hans-Dietrich Genscher of the Free Democratic Party as foreign minister for 16 years and accomplished reunification with consistent, bipartisan and pragmatic diplomacy. Genscher served as foreign minister for two more years for the united Germany.
The situation was completely different on the Korean Peninsula, which has been divided for 76 years thanks to the superpowers’ deal. In South Korea, internal division is a part of daily lives. Whenever a new president takes power, foreign policy and North Korea policies radically change to the extent that allies — and even North Korea — having a hard time adjusting.
And yet, one bill survived the turmoil of three decades. It is the Unification Plan for One National Community, announced on Sept. 11, 1989. Independence, peace and democracy are the basic principles of the unification formula. President Roh Tae-woo led the initiative, and opposition leaders Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil helped create it with Unification Minister Lee Hong-koo.
The National Assembly held public hearings for two months, and the government held 258 seminars to listen to the opinions of liberals and conservatives. Polls were conducted that included opinions of Koreans living overseas. After the ruling and opposition parties agreed — and before President Roh announced it — Park Chul-un, minister for political affairs, was dispatched to Pyongyang as a special envoy to offer explanations. It was a perfect example of unity in the South and inter-Korean coordination.
But his Northern Policy was a classic example of successful diplomacy in a transition period toward the end of the Cold War. Roh announced the Special Declaration for National Self-Esteem, Unification and Prosperity on July 7, 1988 and the Unification Plan for One National Community the following year. During Roh’s presidency, Korea established diplomatic ties with 39 countries, including Communist countries such as the Soviet Union and China, and the two Koreas simultaneous joined the United Nations. South and North Korea also signed the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation, also known as the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement, and the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Thanks to Roh’s efforts, Korea’s diplomatic and economic reach expanded to the global community.
Surprisingly, the United States helped South Korea’s effort to join hands with the Communist countries. Three months before Seoul established diplomatic relations with Moscow, the United States arranged a meeting between Roh and Mikhail Gorbachev in San Francisco in June 1990. Former U.S. Ambassador to Korea Donald Gregg remembered Roh for having pursued extremely meticulous diplomacy. It was different from the current government, which failed to present a diplomatic strategy as it was overwhelmed by North Korea amid the U.S.-China conflict.
In the history of evolution, the most astonishing event was that a cell chose to live together with mitochondria when it entered the system, rather than killing it. Because mitochondria’s role as an energy generator, single-celled organisms could make the leap to multicellularity and evolve to higher organisms, leading to humans.
Roh’s cooperation with opposition parties and Communist states is like the miracle of mitochondria. Without his flexibility and cool-headed decision to end mutual hostilities for coexistence, his Northern Policy may not have survived. It is a lesson that the current presidential candidates of the ruling and opposition parties must learn from.
Roh may have dreamed of reaching Zhuang Zhou’s state of losing oneself. He must have removed the barrier separating himself from the enemy and tried to coexist peacefully. Roh’s leadership must be a lesson for this divided country.
Italian philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce said all history is contemporary history. A fair evaluation of Roh is only possible when we look at reality through a contemporary prism of integration. His demerits include the military coup, Gwangju crackdown, 200-billion-won ($170 million) worth of slush funds and the political trick of three parties’ merging to isolate the Honam region.
It is, however, cruel to not note his merits. He transformed the country’s governing system from an authoritarian dictatorship to democracy. He successfully hosted the 1988 Seoul Olympics and started a public health insurance system. He built 2 million housing units in new cities and started the KTX bullet train and Incheon International Airport projects. Roh’s accomplishments gain more and more luster as time goes on.