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South Korea's Roh Moo-hyun: An Impossible Idealist

Author: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
May 23, 2009


The death of Roh Moo-hyun, the 16th president of the Republic of Korea (2003-2008), is a huge shock to South Korea's political world. A human rights lawyer with no college degree, Roh campaigned to revolutionize Korean politics and society by promoting clean politics, fighting corruption, and challenging personal and elite ties as the basis for advancement in Korean society. His political idealism was both profoundly attractive and disappointing to the South Korean public since he ultimately became a victim to the flaws in the Korean system he had set out to overcome. His apparent suicide on May 23, 2009, following revelations of personal corruption is a shocking political and personal tragedy, with very mixed reverberations for Korean politics.

Roh Moo-hyun's public appeal in South Korea and the seeds of his personal and political demise lay in his impossible idealism. The overwhelming success of his populist, underdog 2002 presidential campaign--driven primarily by an anti-corruption agenda although the international media characterized his agenda as anti-American--was electrifying and surprising to no one more than Roh Moo-hyun himself. He and his supporters were true believers in the need for reform of South Korean politics and society, but they ultimately could not separate themselves from the human failings of a society of which they were a part.

Roh's political idealism was incredibly attractive to his supporters, drawn primarily from South Korea's younger generation of activists who had cut their political teeth on pro-democracy protests of the 1980s. But the dream of a more perfect Korean society, in which merit and egalitarianism would trump personal connections and hierarchy, proved to be an impossible dream, at least for now.

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