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The Bitter End for South Korea’s Leaders

April 30, 2009

By Jon Herskovitz

There is almost no such thing as a happy retirement for South Korea’s former presidents.

Former President Roh Moo-hyun, who left office a little more than a year ago, joined the club of troubled ex-leaders on Thursday when he appeared before prosecutors to answer questions about their suspicions his family received at least $1 million in bribes from a shoe company CEO.

Roh came to office pledging to clean up the South Korean presidency. Even his critics say one of his biggest achievements was to make the election process far more open and fair.

But he was not able to change what critics see as a fundamental problem with politics in South Korea — overly strict election laws. After decades of seeing bribery as commonplace in political circles, the country set up tough laws on campaign financing and other electoral reforms that have helped South Korea become one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia but have also led politicians to scramble for funds.  

Yun Chang-hyun, a professor of finance at the University of Seoul explains: “In America, lobbyists are legal but it is not legal here. That said, lobbying is still going on in many ways. We do not officially accept that money is needed for politics, but in reality, politicians and statesmen need a lot of money. A small amount is permitted, but they need a lot of money. “ 

The fate of former President Roh should become clear in the next few months. Here is what history has brought to his predecessors, almost all of whom left office with dismal support rates:

Syngman Rhee served from 1948-1960. An independence movement leader during the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial period, Rhee was a key figure in setting up the Republic of Korea with the help of the United States. In his final year in office, Rhee’s manipulation of the presidential election vote provoked a nationwide student protest, forcing him to step down and seek refuge in Hawaii. He died in exile in 1965.

Yun Bo-seon was a figurehead leader who served from 1960-61 and would later be put on trial for anti-government activities by the strongman who followed him as president.

 Park Chung-hee, a former elementary school teacher and general, took office in a military coup and was the country’s longest-serving president. His 1961-1979 tenure also came to the most abrupt end when he was shot dead by his intelligence agency chief at a private dinner party.

   Chun Doo Hwan, who served from 1980-1988, was another general who forced his way to the presidency but was later forced to step down in face of massive pro-democracy protests. 

His successor and military colleague, Roh Tae-woo, allowed the National Assembly to conduct a humiliating investigation into Chun’s presidency at a time when Seoul was hosting the 1988
Olympics. After his resignation, Chun spent two spartan years in internal exile at a remote Buddhist monastery in the mountains.

Chun and Roh were later convicted of receiving millions of dollars in bribes as well as mutiny and treason for their roles in the 1979 coup and 1980 massacre of civilians in Kwangju.

Chun was sentenced to death, later commuted to life in jail, while Roh’s 22-1/2-year jail sentence was reduced to 17 years on appeal. Both were released from prison in early 1998.

The next president Kim Young-sam, who served from 1993-1998,  was forced to seek a $58-billion bailout led by the International Monetary Fund in his final weeks in  office when the country teetered on bankruptcy. His son was arrested and jailed for corruption but freed under the next president, Kim Dae-jung.

    Kim Dae-jung, who served from 1998-2003 won the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the divided Koreas closer together but business scandals tarnished his last year in office. Two of his sons were convicted of bribery and tax evasion.

There is only one leader who left office without much fuss, enjoyed a quiet retirement and has also mostly been forgotten.

That would be  Choi Kyu-hah who served as the head of a what was considered a caretaker government from 1979 to 1980. After being forced out by Chun Doo Hwan, and decided he had had enough of political life.  He kept quiet, kept to himself and kept away from the prosecutors office.

(Reuters pictures. From top to bottom: President Roh Moo-hyun. Anti-Roh demonstration outside of the prosecutors’ office in Seoul, file picture of former Presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo on trial.)

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