South Korea's Roh: From Idealist to Pragmatist

Korea's Roh is angering his backers by soft-pedaling reform

During his election campaign last autumn, the relatively unknown Roh Moo Hyun promised dramatic change. And change -- at least in leadership style -- is what Koreans have gotten since Roh's inauguration as President on Feb. 25. In a country known more for political strongmen than men of the people, Roh has been unusually candid about his personal affairs. He has appeared on live television to answer embarrassing questions from hostile commentators about a scandal in his administration and his thorny relations with Korea's newspapers. And he has discussed his marriage and upbringing -- often using rough-edged, working-class slang -- with a talk show host. On May 21 came the most surprising episode of all. Roh stunned the nation by telling a group of civic leaders that he felt "a sense of crisis," and had been rendered helpless by the pressures of the presidency.

All in all, Roh's first three months in office have been a riveting -- if somewhat unsettling -- performance. As promised, Roh has managed to upset plenty of vested interests, from old-guard politicians to powerful tycoons, by shaking up the public prosecutors' office and appointing left-leaning figures to oversee national security. But facing the realities of actually running a country rather than running for office, he has tempered his message of ending the privileges and abuses of Korea's powerful elites. And despite his strong call for an independent foreign policy and a rapprochement with North Korea, Roh has lately embraced Washington's position on Pyongyang. That has alienated the workers, students, and idealists who are his core backers. "His views are in transition, and that is creating dissatisfaction from both sides," says Lim Seong Ho, political science professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.

This backlash from his supporters -- plus Seoul's growing economic and political challenges -- are keeping Roh under pressure. In the first quarter, to the surprise of most economists, South Korea's gross domestic product contracted 0.4% from the previous quarter, the worst performance in two years. The second quarter isn't likely to be much better, given slowing exports and concerns about the collapse of SK Global, the trading arm of the country's third-largest conglomerate.

The economic bad news could spell trouble for Roh. His Millennium Democratic Party currently controls a minority of seats in the National Assembly and is looking to change that in elections next spring. So far, though, Korea's voters have seen little in the way of gains from the economic reforms Roh promised. "Like everywhere in the world, economic recovery will largely dictate the outcome of the vote," says a Western diplomat. That has Roh scrambling to shore up his economic credentials. On May 26, he ordered his Cabinet to make the economy its top priority, though he didn't lay out any specific program.

Now shareholder activists and others seeking to rein in Korea's giant conglomerates, the chaebol, fear reform will bog down. "With the government seeking short-term results, structural reforms that bring short-term pains and long-term benefits will have to wait at least until after the parliamentary elections," worries Kim Sang Jo, a Hansung University economist who heads a shareholder activist group. He calls Roh's economic policies "totally disappointing."

Roh has also left behind much of the idealistic rhetoric on foreign policy that won him the youth vote. In a mid-May meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House, Roh agreed to take unspecified "further steps" -- which some analysts believe could include economic sanctions or a naval blockade -- if North Korea continues to escalate tensions. And stressing the need to close ranks with Washington, he condemned Pyongyang as untrustworthy and assured Bush that Seoul will restrict nonhumanitarian aid to the North. Previously, Roh had said there would be no such linkage. "Being a fast learner, Roh is shifting his foreign policy to seek national interests," says Hong Hyun Ik, a security specialist at the Sejong Institute, an independent think tank.

Roh's core supporters have a decidedly different view of the national interest. On May 18, a day after his return from Washington, Roh attended a ceremony marking the 23rd anniversary of the 1980 Kwangju massacre, when armed troops put down a 10-day revolt, killing at least 193. As Roh's motorcade approached the cemetery where most of the victims are buried, more than 1,000 students clashed with police in riot gear, blocking the President's access to the site and forcing him to pull around to a back gate.

Indeed, much of Roh's first three months in office have been marked by unrest. Truckers, for instance, staged a 10-day strike opposing higher taxes on diesel fuel. And a left-leaning teachers' union threatened to disrupt classes unless the government called off plans to implement a $43 million project to link schools to a nationwide computer network -- which union members say threatened students' privacy. In the end, Roh climbed down on those and other labor issues, further angering his right-wing critics. But at the same time Roh expressed concern that the state could be "so paralyzed" by such actions "that I won't be able to carry out my presidential duties."

Some of the paralysis is happening inside Roh's camp. Old-guard politicos in his party are trying to stop him from dismantling patronage machines, which could give a greater say to rank-and-file members and rein in party potentates, who are used to meeting in smoke-filled backrooms and auctioning off candidacies to the highest bidder.

So far, the consensus is that Roh, despite his apparent crisis of confidence, hasn't necessarily shown himself to be helpless or incompetent. But he hasn't proven that he's up to the job, either. Clearly, he was going to have to abandon campaign rhetoric and adopt flexible policies if he was going to govern effectively, especially with regard to his relations with Washington. "Roh is a pragmatist. An idealist can't shift from anti-American to pro-American," argues Hahm Sung Deuk, a political scientist at Korea University. But he could have shifted his policy more elegantly -- and avoided being labeled a "flunky," as some young Koreans call him.

Analysts note that Roh is a neophyte at public office, having served only six years in the legislature and a few months as a government minister before being elected President. He's learning on the job, and one should expect a few gaffes. By the end of his five years in office, especially if he can hold antagonists at bay and restart the economy, Roh might be judged quite competent indeed. But first he'll have to convince himself that he's up to the job.

By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul

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