South Korea

Roh to Go?

A man watches South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun confess that he doesn't feel up to his job on television, Oct. 10, 2003
A resident of Seoul watches South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun announce that he intends to hold a referendum on his presidency (Photo: Kim Jae-hwan/AFP-Getty Images).

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun rode to victory on a platform of “reform” last December, a position he championed before large audiences of young South Korean nationalists and militant labor groups—two groups that have proved remarkably difficult for Roh (pronounced “No”) to please. Populism has a price, as Roh has evidently discovered.

On Oct. 13, only eight months into his term, Roh dumbfounded South Korean TV viewers with a confession: “I have reached a situation in which I cannot conduct the presidency...I have no confidence in doing my job.” Never before has a South Korean president gone to the people to seek a renewed mandate to govern. Many believe Roh will not do so either. Those closest to him reportedly want him to reconsider. And while many commentators here assumed Roh was engaging in a little political grandstanding—impulsively throwing up empty promises to pre-empt criticism in other areas—Roh seems committed to the idea, leaving politicians and pundits alike scratching their heads trying to determine what it means.

“Everything for Everybody”
Roh’s troubles began immediately after his February 2003 inauguration, as his supporters, emboldened by their victory, took to the streets to demand all that had been promised. Unfortunately, this was too much to ask: Roh won the election on an “everything-for-everybody” platform. Roh repeatedly trumpeted the immutable power of democracy and civil society to roaring crowds, while advocating nationalizing or closing the “right-wing, conspiratorial press,” the bane of Korea’s young, left-leaning progressives. Business interests were enticed with promises of greater labor flexibility, while unions were promised greater power and protection. It’s easy to make promises when you’re the underdog in a presidential election; being the president of a nation divided along regional and generational lines is quite another matter.

South Korea’s historically militant labor unions were the first to test Roh’s new government, initiating walkouts at key logistical and manufacturing centers across the nation. When demands for double-digit wage increases and reduced working hours were met—after strong government prompting—more walkouts followed as workers, some from companies that had not turned a profit in years and were living on long-term government life support, became convinced that the time to cash in had come. By meeting the strikers’ demands, Roh unwittingly unleashed the worst labor unrest since the Asian economic crisis of 1998.

Roh’s troubles did not end there. The second leg of his support base, South Korea’s young, pampered nationalists, spared no time in demanding lesser U.S.-South Korean military ties and closer relations with the North.

Roh’s overreaching election platform left him vulnerable to demands from both sides of Korea’s increasingly polarized society. Once elected, Roh found himself trying to balance competing demands from labor and management, the left and the right, and both sides of every hot-button debate in Korean politics. This prompted Roh to publicly declare last May, less than fours months after his inauguration, that “he would not step down”—a statement few understood given that there had not been any public demand for his resignation.

Just as the labor disputes began to wind down last month (strikes and demonstrations tend to be seasonal in Korea), German professor and North Korean Politiburo Member Song Du-yul arrived in Seoul. The visit was carefully orchestrated by the Korea Democracy Foundation (KDF), a civic group that favors unification with the North, to test the validity of South Korea’s National Security Law (NSL), decades-old legislation that makes it a crime punishable by lengthy imprisonment for any group or individual to participate in activities designed to “promote” the North Korean state.

Korean commentators who favor rapprochement with the North have questioned the utility of the law, given that the government, and many private companies operating with the government’s blessing, have been involved in open-ended financial support of the North since Roh’s predecessor Kim Dae-jung was elected in 1998. Despite such state-sanctioned rapprochement, the NSL continues to define North Korea as a threat and provides the raison d’être for active U.S. involvement in the peninsula. To repeal the legislation, many argue, would signal the end of the 50-year U.S.-Korean alliance and would pit South Korea against itself. Yet though Roh and other administration officials knew of the plan to invite Song months in advance, no action was taken to prevent his arrival. Song has been arrested and remains in detention while government prosecutors decide what punishment they will seek.

The Rich Get Richer
And then there is the perennial issue of corruption, a millstone around the neck of the nation. Transparency International, a Berlin-based watchdog, this year rated South Korea among the most corrupt countries on Earth. Many Korean scholars have concluded that Korea’s development strategy, with its emphasis on a handful of corporate empires controlled by individual families, ensured an unhealthy concentration of wealth, gave these wealthy few undue influence over government policy, and contributed to the structural weaknesses that made South Korea susceptible to the 1998 regional economic crisis.

The post-1998 South Korean economic recovery was largely dependent on massive liquidity, low interest rates, and an explosion in the use of consumer credit, leaving entrenched institutional weaknesses hidden. According to recent data from the Korea Development Institute, 20 percent of South Koreans now live below or near the poverty line, twice as many as did six years ago. Meanwhile, according to a report released by the Bank of Korea at the end of October, the average income of the richest 20 percent of South Koreans expanded to 5.4 times that of the poorest 20 percent. The last report, released five years ago, had the richest 20 percent of South Korea’s population earning 4.5 times what the poorest South Koreans did. In the same vein, South Korea’s Gini index, which measures the degree to which the distribution of income among families or individuals deviates from perfectly equal distribution, has steadily risen over recent years, up from 0.28 in 1997 to 0.31 in 2002. In South Korea, the rich really are getting richer, as the nascent middle class slips back into poverty, a phenomenon one Seoul-based foreign diplomat referred to as the “Thailandization of Korea.”

The reports of graft filling South Korea’s newspapers today are not new. But Roh’s apparent resolve to keep them in the press and to support broad investigations into corruption is new. But such broad investigations are perilous. Some of those closest to Roh have already been implicated, a fact Roh’s enemies—many of whom have also been tarred by corruption scandals—are likely to exploit in the next elections.

Roh has talked himself into a corner: He must produce real change, knowing that whatever path he takes half the population will despise him. This may have been the impetus behind Roh’s startling confession that he does not feel up to his job.

Only Roh Knows
On the surface, Roh’s call for a referendum smacks of political opportunism. President Roh has left the Millennium New Democratic Party (MDP) and is operating on his own. Many of his supporters have also left the MDP and have formed a new party, called “Uri”, or “Our Party.” Roh has often complained that the Grand National Party (GNP) majority in the National Assembly has made it impossible for him to pass the legislation he would like. A referendum in December, it is fair to say, could elicit the sort of groundswell of support that ushered Roh into the nation’s highest office last year. If the same strategy works again, Roh, with irresistible grass-roots support, could throw his backing to Uri, allowing it to win a majority in elections scheduled for this April. Roh could then pass new, controversial legislation.

But Roh has shied away from joining Uri. Political necessity has moved Roh closer to the center since his election, territory the new party has not yet explored. Some of the reformers are so radical, so far from the center, and so politically naive that they would certainly upset Roh’s delicate balancing act.

It could be that Roh is looking for support for himself individually, that he is planning maverick reforms beyond the scope of GNP and Uri party politics, reforms that he feels would require a new mandate from the people. A referendum victory could help to quell organized opposition, regardless of the source, to his agenda.

Roh has thus far managed to navigate between nationally divisive and politically damaging issues relatively unscathed. But he’ll need to step on some toes to move forward now—and the referendum could be national preparation for that.

Possibly Roh views the promise of a referendum itself as a source of political currency. Unlike past presidents, who left office unpopular and widely viewed as having been overly concerned with their own—often financial—legacy at the expense of the nation, Roh can maintain that he has the interests of the nation so much at heart that he is willing to walk away from the presidency if the people ask him to.

Others here argue that the good of the nation is not necessarily assured by redirecting the attention of the nation’s lawmakers from pressing matters of state. South Korea’s domestic economy is stagnating: unemployment is rising, the young are increasingly unable to pay their debts, poverty levels are rising...the list goes on. Roh may believe that this exercise in direct democracy underscores his connection to the people, but it may have the opposite effect.

The referendum could easily turn against Roh. If the referendum is held, a majority may vote against him. Indeed, Roh won the election only by a slim majority. It’s hard to imagine he would do better now. This is not a California-style recall: No other candidates are on the ballot, and South Korea’s election laws make it illegal for the opposition to field a candidate as this is not an election. Thus the opposition is put in the thorny position of trying to convince people to vote against the incumbent without fielding an alternative.

The referendum process used as a tool to reaffirm the self-confidence of the leader is also of dubious legality. The South Korean Constitution clearly states that referenda should be used only to decide matters of “national destiny.” The efficacy of the president may not fit that definition. Given the lack of precedent, it’s not clear what percentage of yes votes would be sufficient. Would Roh resign if he received 49 percent support?

Whether the referendum will come to pass remains to be seen. Sources within Roh’s administration hope the whole issue will just go away and privately conclude that it is already dead. But Roh remains publicly committed to the idea. If the referendum comes to fruition, the results could well show nothing more than what most South Koreans already know: The nation is divided and the path ahead is unclear. Given that the Constitution limits Roh to one term, many may conclude that the whole adventure squandered time and resources that could have been better applied to addressing the fundamental issues that plague the country, the president’s self-esteem not withstanding.

David Scofield is a lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.