After serving as a rather obscure military leader for many years, Roh Tae Woo (born 1932) became active in the South Korean government following the coup by Chun Doo Hwan. It was his part in this coup which landed him with a 17-year prison sentence. In 1987 Roh was elected as the 13th president of the Republic of Korea.
Roh Tae Woo, as president of South Korea's Sixth Republic, wished to be remembered as "an ordinary man" in the era of "the common people." Although constitutionally elected as the 13th president of the Republic of Korea (ROK) on December 16, 1987, he received only 36.6 percent of the total popular votes. His ruling Democratic Justice Party also failed to capture the majority votes in the April 1988 National Assembly election, winning only 125 seats in the 299-member legislative body. As a result, President Roh's effectiveness as political leader was handicapped in the subsequent years.
Roh was a retired four-star general and a hand-picked successor to former President Chun Doo Hwan of the Fifth Republic (1980-1988). Roh was Chun's classmate in the 11th graduating class of the Korean Military Academy in 1955. Like Chun, Roh had his family roots in Taegu and served in Vietnam as commander of an ROK unit. When Chun carried out a coup on December 12, 1979, following President Park Chung Hee's assassination on October 26, Roh moved his 9th Infantry Division from the Demilitarized Zone to Seoul to support the coup.
Roh held several key army posts such as commander of the Capital Security Command in 1979 and commander of the Defense Security Command in 1980. After his retirement from the military in July 1981, Roh accepted Chun's offer of the post of minister of state for national security and foreign affairs. Later he also served as sports minister, home affairs minister, president of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee, and, in 1985, chairman of the ruling Democratic Justice Party.
Despite this clear record of his past activities, Roh worked to distance himself from both his military background and his ties with his mentor, now-disgraced expresident Chun. The reason is that Roh worked to carry out his own agenda for democratic reform. By agreeing on June 29, 1987, to meet opposition demands for political reforms with his eight-point proposal, including direct presidential elections, Roh successfully upstaged Chun and thereby boosted his own image as reformer. In the December 1987 presidential election, the candidate Roh promised to submit his leadership to a mid-term "vote of confidence" soon after the 1988 Seoul Olympics (this pledge, however, was subsequently rescinded on March 20, 1989). Roh won the election and was inaugurated February 2-5, 1988.
Roh was born on December 4, 1932, into a farming family in a small village, Talsong, near Taegu, north Kyongsang province. His father, a low-echelon civil officer in the district, died in a car accident when Roh was seven years old. With his uncle's help, Roh first enrolled at the Taegu Technical School but transferred to the local Kyongbuk High School where he was an above-average student. His high school record describes him as a "gentle and hard-working student with a strong sense of responsibility."
During the Korean War (1950-1953) Roh joined the army as an enlisted man and later entered the Korean Military Academy, completing it in the first class of the four-year program in 1955. He fought in the Vietnam War first in 1968 as a lieutenant colonel and later as commander of the ROK unit. Roh was indeed an "ordinary man" unknown to the public until he plunged himself into politics by helping his classmate Chun Doo Hwan to carry out a coup.
Roh's stance as president was activist in diplomacy and steadfast in the push toward political and socio-economic reforms at home. Democratization of politics, economic "growth with equity," and national reunification were the three policy goals publicly stated by the Roh administration. Successfully hosting the 24th Summer Olympic in Seoul in 1988 was a major accomplishment, followed by his active diplomacy, including his address before the United National General Assembly in October 1988 and his meeting with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the White House. During his subsequent U.S. trip in 1989, Roh also met with U.S. President George Bush and delivered a speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress. He also conducted a five-nation European visit in December 1989.
On July 7, 1988, he launched an aggressive foreign policy initiative called the Northern Diplomacy, or Nordpolitik, which brought about benefits and rewards to his government. In 1989 Seoul established diplomatic relations with Hungary and Poland, followed by diplomatic ties with Yugoslavia, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Mongolia in 1990. South Korea's trade with China steadily increased, reaching the $3.1 billion mark in 1989 at the same time as South Korea's trade with the East European countries and the Soviet Union increased to $800 million. Seoul and Moscow exchanged full consular general's offices in 1990.
Roh's emphasis on "economic growth with equity," although well received by the public, led to the dwindling in the annual economic growth rate from the high of 12.3 percent in 1988 to 6.7 percent in 1989. As labor strikes and demands for higher wages intensified, the Roh government imposed an austerity plan to keep South Korea's export-oriented economy more competitive internationally. However, higher wages and the appreciation of the won in value against the U.S. dollar made Korean products less competitive internationally.
In order to overcome paralysis of governing due to lack of majority support in the National Assembly, the Roh government sought to attain "a grand compromise" in partisan politics. The surprising announcement of the party merger in January 1990 was an attempt to accomplish this political miracle. The ruling Democratic Justice Party merged with two opposition parties, Kim Young Sam's Reunification and Democracy Party and Kim Jong Pil's New Democratic Republican Party. The newly established Democratic Liberal Party, which commanded more than a two-thirds majority in the legislature, sought to establish political stability so as to enable socio-economic progress. On June 4 Roh Tae Woo, while visiting the United States, met with another presidential visitor, Mikhail Gorbachev of the U.S.S.R. The meeting ended 42 years of official silence between the two countries and paved the way for improved diplomatic relations.
The historical significance and legacy of Roh Tae Woo is the broad political reform which he helped to start rolling, steering the country toward greater democracy and pluralism. Yet, he may be just as well remembered for his "trial of the century".
On August 26, 1996 former South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan was sentenced to death, and former President Roh Tae Woo was given more than 22 years in prison, for seizing power in a 1979 mutiny. The sentences were later reduced to life and 17 years respectfully.
In addition, a three-judge panel confiscated war chests worth about $631 million illegally amassed by Chun and Roh during their dictatorships. They were convicted of masterminding a "creeping coup" which began with an army mutiny in 1979 and ended with a massacre of pro-democracy protesters in the southwestern city of Kwangju in 1980. At least 240 people were killed. Chun has insisted his actions were necessary to defend the country against a possible attack by North Korea in the unstable aftermath of the 1979 assassination of President Park Chung Hee.
Roh—designated Prisoner 1437—entered a Seoul courtroom on Dec. 19, 1995 without a hint of the power he once wielded as president. His head bowed and speaking in whispers, he answered more than 200 questions from prosecutors about the $650 million slush fund he admitted to amassing. "I have never, ever intended to accept any bribes," Roh insisted in an irritated tone. "I have received only donations. I have never swapped them for favors."
Roh did not make a final appeal to the Supreme Court against his convictions for mutiny, treason and bribery. He stated he didn't want to cause any more worries to the public over this incident. The appeals court cut his prison sentence to 17 years from 22 1/2 years.
Further Reading on Roh Tae Woo
Additional information on Roh Tae Woo can be found in Ilpyong J. Kim and Young Whan Kihl, editors, Political Change in South Korea (1988). Updated information was gathered from LA Times "S. Korea Court Overturns Ex-President's Death Sentence; Successor Roh Tae Woo's term cut by five years," Monday, December 16, 1996; "2 Ex-Leaders Guilty of Mutiny in S. Korea, Chun Given Death," Monday, August 26, 1996; World in Brief, South Korea: "Ex-Presidents Won't Appeal Convictions," Monday, December 23, 1996; Chicago Tribune "200 Questions for S. Korea's Roh," 12/19/95, and "Anger Flares at S. Korean Trial," 01/16/96.