Since gaining independence after World War II, the nation has had 12 presidents. The world admires the postwar history of South Korea as a rare success story, but the fates of our former presidents only remind us what a rugged path we have had to arrive here now.
We hate to recount that the first president, Syngman Rhee, died during exile in Hawaii and Park Chung-hee, who took power in a military coup, was assassinated by his close aide. Among their successors, two were jailed for treason, two others are currently serving long prison terms, and one died by suicide.
While President Moon Jae-in is on a European tour to attend a G-20 summit, opposition candidates for the March 2022 presidential election are warning him of the unhappy things he might face after he leaves office. With only four months left of his tenure, people have made more negative than positive appraisals of what he has done, as opinion surveys reveal that the majority wants a change of power.
During his absence, a state funeral was held for Roh Tae-woo, who served three decades before Moon. Roh is remembered as a mild-hearted man who was not quite fit for the time of transition from military rule to democracy, yet he is now assessed to have done the tough job well with caution and patience.
As the No. 1 deputy to Gen.-turned-President Chun Doo-hwan, Roh was to succeed him through a summary process under an illegitimate constitution but he chose to compete against opposition candidates in a direct popular vote. He made the so-called “June 29 (1987) declaration” accepting the opposition call for a constitutional change to return to the democratic system.
Chun released opposition hero Kim Dae-jung from a ban on political activities as if taking a step for fair play. But it was a strategy to open the field for Kim and other oppositionists, including Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil, to compete with each other to take on ruling party candidate Roh.
The election was set to be held promptly less than two months after a new Constitution was promulgated, approved by a National Assembly vote and a national referendum. “DJ” and “YS,” longtime rivals for opposition leadership since the Park Chung-hee days, were each confident of victory even in the four-way contest, as they regarded Roh as representing a receding power.
However, Roh ended up winning 36.6 percent of votes against YS’ 28.0 percent, DJ’s 27.0 percent and Kim Jong-pil’s 8.1 percent. If they had had a little more time to negotiate, according to later analyses, an opposition coalition could have been realized and whoever emerged as the sole candidate should have had a better chance of beating Roh.
After an uneasy start, Roh’s five-year presidency turned out to be a period of effective changeover to civilian rule under a new leader, a retired four-star general seeking to cleanse society and officialdom of military influences. Roh had to weather significant repercussions from those in uniform. At a commencement ceremony of the Korea Military Academy, its commandant “forgot” to salute Roh, the commander in chief, before giving an address to cadets.
On Seoul streets, demonstrations continued, demanding punishment of former President Chun and other officers responsible for the 1980 Gwangju massacre. Roh had to calm public protests by sending Chun into domestic exile at a remote Buddhist temple. He then took reform measures in welfare and other administrative matters and started major infrastructure projects to improve transportation and communication networks.
Upon his death, press articles particularly recalled the normalization of relations with the Soviet Union and with Korean War adversary China as milestone achievements of Roh’s tenure. With North Korea, “basic agreements” were adopted on nonaggression and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which led to the two Koreas’ simultaneous entry into the United Nations.
Roh was hardly a tactful leader, yet he took the stunning initiative of merging his party with two of three opposition groups in order to control the legislature and start a virtual two-party system. For the following three decades, South Korean democracy evolved with the governing power swinging between the right and the left somewhat regularly.
Looking back, South Koreans chose “selective change” in their return to democracy if we borrow Jared Diamond’s term used in his 2019 book “Upheaval.” In the book, which reviews how countries in different parts of the world met and overcame crises in their modern histories, it is interesting to note that the Chileans at the opposite end of the globe ended the 17-year oppressive rule of Augusto Pinochet at about the same time as Roh’s presidency here, but in a contrasting way.
The Chileans allowed the military to retain various kinds of prestige when former President Patricio Aylwin inaugurated a democratic administration in 1990, such as Pinochet’s permanent title as commander in chief and a guarantee of more than sufficient military spending in annual government budgets. The South Korean version of selective change was electing a former military man as their first president after the restoration of democracy and having him preside over the process of consolidating civilian rule.
What if we imagine an alternative history in which military rule ended and pro-democracy movement forces took over directly, without Roh in between? Would the nation have had a faster transition to full democratic governance or would it have taken a longer time because of resistance from the armed forces? In reality, a democratically reformed officer named Roh Tae-woo subjected himself to the call of the times to stabilize a democratic civilian rule, enduring complaints and even insults from his former colleagues.
Three decades later, in 2017, Moon Jae-in entered Cheong Wa Dae, the presidential mansion built by Roh, winning 40 percent of votes in a by-election following the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, in which he competed against multiple candidates from the former ruling force. He made many promises on wide-ranging reforms, but the five years of leftist rule heightened political and social polarization and yielded few achievements toward improving livelihoods.
Moon spent much of his energy on the self-assumed mission of “righting past wrongs,” which meant little more than political retaliation. Roh spent his five years coming to terms with civilian adversaries and still had time to do other things that the nation needed. Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.
By Korea Herald (email@example.com