Roh Moo-hyun: A Life of Challenges

      May 25, 2009 09:38

      Former President Roh Moo-hyun's life was characterized by challenges. The challenges were poverty, lack of academic association, dictatorship and regionalism. A string of dramatic successes and failures peaked with his inauguration as the 16th president of Korea in 2003. But his performance as president received mixed evaluations. And just 15 months after he returned to Bongha Village, seeking to set a new precedent in the lifestyle of an ex-President, he became mired in a bribery scandal involving a wealthy businessman named Park Yeon-cha. Death was his answer to that challenge.

      Former President Roh Moo-hyun rides a rickshaw with his granddaughters in the carriage at Bongha Village in April 2008. /Official website for the late former President Roh Moo-hyun

      ◆ From Village to Law Practice

      Born in 1946 in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province, Roh Moo-hyun was the youngest of five children. After attending elementary and junior high school in his hometown, Roh went on to attend Busan Commercial High School in 1963 on a scholarship. Upon graduation he got a job in a small company but quit after a month and a half and went back to his hometown to study for the bar exam. It was then that he met and married Kwon Yang-sook, who lived in the same village.

      After passing the bar exam in 1975, Roh opened a law office in Busan in 1978 and gained a reputation for his high rate of winning court cases. His life took a dramatic turn in 1981, when he decided to represent the defendants of the Burim Incident, student members of a book club that studied leftist theories who had been detained and tortured by counterespionage officers. He gave up his comfortable lifestyle as a local attorney and became an opposition figure by working as a human rights lawyer and forming ties with student and political activists. His choice was to have a huge impact on both himself and Korean society, far greater than he had imagined.

      Clockwise from top left, former President Roh Moo-hyun during military service; with colleagues who passed the bar exam in the same year; in his days as a human rights lawyer; and on holiday with his wife

      ◆ From Opposition to Presidency

      Roh suffered several election and political defeats due to his convictions and refusal to make political compromises. But many people were moved by his daring if sometimes foolhardy challenges and formed the support group Nosamo. They used a new medium called the Internet to create a loyal following, enabling Roh's dramatic rise to 16th President. During his five-year tenure, Roh pursued bold reforms that Korea had never experienced. He often stood right at the center of controversy by personally leading those reforms.

      Roh is credited with changing Korea's political culture. Previous administrations had regarded the ruling party as an extension of the presidential office. But Roh gave autonomy to the ruling party, making changes that led to critics accusing him of fomenting disorder and destabilizing authority. Others feel that his reforms helped get rid of some of the worst abuses of power committed by previous Presidents through their control over the ruling party.

      Former President Roh Moo-hyun's presidential inauguration ceremony (top left), the National Assembly at the time of his impeachment (bottom left), and Roh with his brother at a family burial ground (right)

      ◆ From Retirement to Suicide

      In February 2007, Roh returned to Bongha Village as he had wished. Visitors flocked to catch a glimpse of the former President busy farming. But Park Yeon-cha, a shoe manufacturer and long-time political supporter, became the target of an investigation by prosecutors, casting dark clouds over Bongha Village. In April, Roh became the third former President to appear before prosecutors. Roh, who had stressed ethics and tried to differentiate himself from traditional politics, was under great pressure until he took the radical way out on Saturday.

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