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Roh Muh-hyun: Profile of the South Korean Leader

BY Gail Martin  May 15, 2003 at 4:53 PM EST

As a candidate, Roh expressed a willingness to negotiate with the North, a position he remained committed to even after Pyongyang announced in October 2002 that it was actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program. But the South Korean leader has stressed his desire to keep open lines of communication does not mean he condones the North’s nuclear ambitions.

“Regardless of whatever causes North Korea embraces, the series of nuclear measures taken by the country is not desirable for peace and stability in Northeast Asia, including the Korean Peninsula,” Roh said in December. “It will never promote the stability and prosperity of North Korea itself. North Korea must withdraw its recent nuclear measures and restore the relevant facilities and equipment to their original state.”

Roh, whose name is pronounced “No,” was born August 6, 1946, in Gimhae, Gyeongsang-namdo province. His parents were poor farmers who decided that their children would be educated. Roh attended Busan Vocational High School on scholarship. After graduation, he found work with a fishing net company.

But Roh had set his sights higher, aiming to be a lawyer. Unable to afford college due to the low pay of his current work, decided to teach himself the law.

Ten years later, what Roh calls the 10 hardest years of his life, the self-taught lawyer passed the bar on his fourth try.

“Every time I look back on my life, I am suddenly engulfed in a certain feeling. It is a kind of shame,” Roh said in his publication, Common Sense or Hope. “It is exceptional, in a society which puts so much stress on one’s educational background, that a man with only a vocational high school diploma was elected president.”

While practicing law in 1981, Roh defended one of several student members of a book club that studied leftist theories. The students were detained and tortured for almost two months by the government, in an episode widely known in South Korea as the Burim Incident.

“When I saw a tortured student in the course of defending my client, a student involved in the Burim Incident, it occurred to me that it could also occur to my own child who would become a college student sooner or later,” Roh wrote.

His experience in the Burim cases fundamentally changed Roh, launching his career as a human rights lawyer, defending student protesters and striking workers. He also became an activist in the pro-democracy movement, joining the Democratic Citizens Council in 1985. By 1987, he was the director of the Busan headquarters of the Citizens’ Movement for a Democratic Constitution.

In 1987, Roh participated in the June Struggle demonstrations, which called for direct presidential elections. In September of that year, Roh was arrested in a protest at Daewoo Shipbuilding and spent three weeks in prison for aiding and abetting striking workers.

But the incident cost Roh more than a few weeks in jail; the authorities also suspended his license to practice law.

His legal practise shuttered, Roh turned to politics, using his high profile involvement in the pro-Democracy effort to win election to the National Assembly in 1988. He held the seat for only one term after quitting his party in protest of a party merger he opposed.

From 1988 to 2000, Roh political ambitions garnered few victories, winning only two out of six elections. In 1992, Roh ran for a National Assembly seat as a member of a new party, representing his home base of Pusan, and lost. In 1995, he ran for mayor of Pusan and lost. In 1998, Roh tried again for the National Assembly, this time from Seoul, and won a two-year term. In 2000, Roh returned to Pusan to run for the National Assembly and lost once again.

Despite another election disappointment, two critical things came out of the 2000 defeat: First, he spent election night reading Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, becoming so inspired by the 16th American president that he wrote a book, “Roh Moo-Hyun Meets Lincoln.” Second, his supporters created a Web-based fan club called Rohsamo, which means “People Who Love Roh Moo-Hyun.”

The grassroots groundswell of support came just in time for Roh, who was considering quitting his failing career as a politician. The fan club renewed his political aspirations.

“I could no longer abandon myself to despair,” Roh wrote about Rohsamo. “I found that I became a politician happier than anyone.”

Just two and a half years later, in December 2002, Roh won the presidency on the Millennium Democratic Party ticket. He later wrote that he wanted to be “a leader who is always within reach of the people,” the type of president that went out without bodyguards to visit the markets and have a drink with the people.

According to his official bio, the 56-year-old practices 30 minutes of yoga daily and is married with two children. He is a writer and avid reader. Among his favorite books are “Between Hope and History” by Bill Clinton and “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo.