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Roh’s Death Underlines Political Immaturity in Korea

Posted by: Ihlwan Moon on May 22, 2009

Former South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun’s suicide on May 23 is a vivid reminder that the country has a long way to go to reach political maturity. True, Korea is an example in the modern history of development: it achieved economic prosperity and democracy in a generation. Yet, politicians leading the country still brawl in parliament, with emotional outbursts often setting tones in sessions called to decide on national agendas.

Roh was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital after falling from a rock while hiking and leaving a note to his family. A human rights lawyer, Roh took office in 2003 vowing to fight corruption during his five-year term, but his death came amid a bribery probe over a payment worth just over $1 million to his wife from a wealthy businessman while he was still in office. The businessman was also accused of bribing Roh’s close associates.

Weeks before his death, Roh publicly apologized for his family’s involvement in a corruption probe but has not admitted to personal wrongdoing. Roh, 62, was Korea’s third former president to be questioned by state prosecutors after Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, who were both convicted in 1995 of receiving bribes and inciting mutiny.

By the time he left office in 2008, Roh had become deeply unpopular and was succeeded by a conservative former businessman, Lee Myung Bak. Roh was largely credited for running a cleaner government but admitted that his wife had taken money. State prosecutors in the past months have been leaking details of suspicions centering Roh’s family and close associates, the move Roh supporters have described as political vendetta by the conservatives.

Reader Comments

Victor Foo

May 24, 2009 7:23 AM

Well, I do agree with the assessment that Korean politics have not matured to that of advanced Western nations. After all, they have been democracy for centuries. Whereas in South Korea, it has only seen democracy for a little over 20 years. However, Roh Moo Hyun did much to change Korean politics. He reduced collusive ties between business and politics sharply by revising political funding act. He reduced the power of the presidency and increased judiciary and legislative independence by ending party bossism. He also dissolved the press club system by giving other medias more important role instead of just giving the three main conservative media main dominance. He worked together with progressive non-governmental organization to fight against graft by coordinating anti-corruption policies with the formerly known Korea Independent Commission Against Corruption and now Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission. These are his positive legacy in politics. Yes, the corruption allegation surrounding his family might suggest that graft is still rampant. However, I don't see it that way. By working hard to reform Korean politics, he strengthen rule of law in the nation. So, if everyone who are involved in corruption will not be spared including his family members and the ruling party officials. They are subject to tough investigation. All of what he has done suggests that he had enhanced Korean political transparency considerably. His political legacy must continue. The next step is to create a cooperative atmosphere in Korean parliament where both the major and opposition parties will resort to dialogue and compromise and debate key policies facing the nation peacefully. Regrettably, the current Lee Myung Bak government did not pursue this reform. I hope he pursue this now. Only by continuing the path of political reform will Korea become stronger economically and socially.

chae s. sone

May 24, 2009 10:09 AM

Dear Editor:

The news on the suicide of the former South Korean president Mr. Rho is a shocking and a saddest story.

1. He was a great man to be the president of the country constantly under the threat of the communists from such a humble background. We admire him for his remarkable achievement as an individual Korean with a humble background.

2. His attempt to reconcile with the ignorant North is also admirable up to a certain point.

3. It is very sad that such a good man did not have a stronger, cleaner conscience to fight against the false accusations if any and tell to the people clearly as it is whether his administration was corrupt or not. For people still have questions on the matters.

4. As reports indicate his family received many bribes that should be cleared too for his honor even after his death and in honor of the Korean people for whom millions lost their lives to fight against communist aggressors.

5. If his dead closes the investigation, it means the family got the free money if any.
We do not believe that is a good impression that any family member wants to
leave after his life.

6. Now his children and Mrs. Roh courageously, openly announce before a clergy.
what they know or not, what they did and whether or not they were on the wrong tract to reveal their sincerity and honor of the loved one now in another world.

7. Surrender all the illegally gained assets, if any, to the public and make apology to the people and before God. Then God will bless you again abundantly.

8. It is the right way to honor the late president Moo Hyun Roh who worked so hard for his own success for the people but, unfortunately was soiled by the dirty politics that we must try to clean up – in a degree, many thoughtful political leaders and common people in Korea should bear a grave responsibility allowing impermissible political immoralities in the society.

9. Creating a cleaner society, we can honor the late president who vividly demonstrated his unbearable guilty feelings to his loved people although it was too harsh for the people to bear it softly. Let Koreans finish his unwished clean up job.

In this way, I wish to pay my respect to him.

God bless the surviving families and the saddened Korean people. For better days are coming for us all. Member that Korean people are hard working and smart.

Chae S. Sone and family


May 28, 2009 3:57 PM

Roh's death rattled stock markets and added to a growing sense of instability in the region. Events in Korea affect the entire world. Asia Chronicle ( has been reporting on this for weeks now, it seems less shocking to hear about Roh's death when one is properly informed.

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