Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The Plight of South Korean Presidents

The closest parallel to the Roh Moo-hyun presidency in American politics would probably be Jimmy Carter.

Both men were decidedly left-of-center, combining the appeal that their party had at the time of their election with a reputation for personal honesty and integrity: Much as Carter told a nation scarred by Watergate that he’d never lie to them, Roh promised a nation whose electoral system was renowned for its corruption that he’d practice “clean politics.”

Also, like Carter, Roh’s ineffectual presidency was probably the low point of his career in the public service. After being drummed out of office in 1980, Carter devoted himself to diplomacy and humanitarian work, while Roh’s earlier defense of the victims of Korea’s authoritarian politics is what catapulted him to prestige in the first place.

Both men were ineffective as president, but at least they were ineffective on a grand scale: Carter, after presiding over double-digit inflation levels and Iran-Contra, was defeated in a 1980 election that thereafter realigned the American South toward Republicans. Roh’s tremendously unpopular tenure, in which youth unemployment soared, resulted in the collapse of the Uri (Our) Party, from which left-of-center politics in Korea have yet to recover.

Though the right-leaning GNP had an approval rating in the mid-30s in December, the main opposition Democratic Party’s was hovering around 10.

Roh’s suicide is unprecedented for leaders of either country, however. The one trend it does follow is the disastrous end that seems to await all of South Korea’s heads of state:

Syngman Rhee: After allegations of election rigging, the Republic of Korea’s first president was driven from office in 1960, barely escaping protestors who’d converged on the Blue House. Rhee died in exile in 1965, but at least it was in Hawaii.
Park Chung-hee: Ruled from 1962-79, during the economy grew but labor conditions were atrocious and freedoms of speech/press trampled. Eventually shot and killed by his own intelligence chief.
Chun Doo-hwan: Call him Park-lite, as he served in a similar capitalist dictatorship, though he did institute the nation’s democratic reforms of the late-80s. Later convicted of corruption and for mutiny in connection for his seizure of power in 1980, Chun’s original death sentence was commuted by Kim Young-sam.
Roh Tae-woo: Charged along with Chun for corruption; originally sentenced to 22 years in prison but pardoned in 1998 by Kim Dae-jung.

Jimmy Carter has not been disgraced the way Roh was after his presidency, but had he faced an investigation of the intensity that Roh did, who knows? Of course, in America we don't put former presidents on trial.

No matter how much we ought to.

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