Behind the Wheel : Has Roh's Journey from the Barricades to the Blue House Prepared Him to Lead South Korea?
Wehrfritz, George, Lee, B. J., Newsweek International
The Daewoo sedan skirted police patrols in the dead of night. At the wheel, human-rights lawyer Roh Moo Hyun navigated past various protest sites scattered across Pusan, South Korea's main port city. It was 1987. Roh's passenger, a former client and student activist named Lee Ho Chul, had already been jailed--and tortured--for antigovernment activities. Hidden in the Daewoo's trunk: thousands of contraband leaflets demanding that strongman Chun Doo Hwan, a hard-line general who seized power in 1980, step down and permit democratic elections. Their nerves were stretched taut. "If caught, we would have been arrested," says Lee.
Like many in his generation, Roh is a veteran of political struggle. Yet until very recently, the democracy he strove to create served him poorly. Over the last 12 years he has lost four of the six elections he's entered. Even a year ago he was not widely recognized as a rising star in South Korean politics. Then, unexpectedly, the 56-year-old high-school graduate swept the ruling Millennium Democratic Party's primary and, buoyed by Internet-savvy baby boom-ers born after the Korean War, defeated his conservative opponent to claim victory in last December's presidential election. On Feb. 25, he will succeed Kim Dae Jung to become his country's ninth president in a gala Inaugural marking a generational change in South Korean politics.
Roh enters the Blue House with an ambitious domestic agenda. But those plans are overshadowed by a single explosive issue: the North Korean nuclear crisis, which threatens to define, even consume, his presidency. Pyongyang's belligerence has undermined Roh's case for continued inter-Korean engagement and strained Seoul's all-important alliance with Washington. In Seoul for the Inaugural, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will seek Roh's help in cooling tensions with the North (the latest shot being a threat to abandon the armistice that ended the Korean War) before any U.S.-led attack on Iraq provokes an even more dramatic gesture.
Intelligence experts fear strongman Kim Jong Il could lash out with a missile test, a declaration of nuclear statehood, or even an underground A- bomb blast. To date, China and Russia have done little to counter Kim's belligerence. And Roh's offer to mediate doesn't sit well in either Washington or Pyongyang; the regime continues to demand "knee-to-knee" talks with the Americans--an end game that makes the Bushies cringe. Unless something changes, Roh could become a bystander in a showdown fought within artillery range of the Blue House.
As a candidate, Roh criticized U.S. President George W. Bush's tough approach to North Korea and actively courted the anti-American student vote. But in a NEWSWEEK interview last week, he sounded like a man looking to temper his message. "Both in Korea and the United States, there are people who are excessive, even extreme," he said. At one point he referred to "unilateralist characteristics" in U.S. foreign policy, but when asked to elaborate he leaned back in his chair and took a long pause. "Let's not go too deep into this," he said finally. "You have some ideas, and I don't think it would be good form to confirm them." A moment later he added: "I have some dissatisfaction with my wife, whom I love very much."
The familial metaphors are a contrivance, to be sure. But Roh is learning to better navigate the minefield of international diplomacy. That education can't come too fast for a man recently described by one senior U.S. diplomat in Seoul as less experienced diplomatically than any incoming leader he had ever encountered. Immediately after the election Roh clumsily raised the possibility of U.S. troop withdrawals from South Korea, where some 37,000 American soldiers now serve. Just a few weeks ago an envoy he dispatched to meet senior Bush administration officials in Washington stunned his hosts by asserting that many of his countrymen would rather see North Korea develop nuclear weapons than collapse. …