Roh's fleeting moment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 October, 2007, 12:00am

It was a triumphant return.

At a stage-managed event at Dorasan just south of the demilitarised zone on Thursday evening, a beaming Roh Moo-hyun, fresh from his Pyongyang adventure, rose to address an expectant crowd.

'Take a good look,' the South Korean president told millions of his countrymen watching the address live on television. 'I have brought home a loaded bag, a big package.'

Indeed. After a three-day visit to North Korea, during which the press had speculated wildly over the apparent lack of chemistry between him and Kim Jong-il, the deeply unpopular president had brought home, in the form of a nine-point joint declaration, the bacon.

Echoing former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's statement on then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr Roh said of Mr Kim: 'To put it very simply, I could talk to him.'

The joint declaration includes plans for talks to officially end the 1950-1953 Korean war and support for dismantling the North's nuclear programme, a process to which Mr Kim gave Mr Roh a 'clear statement' of his commitment.

In the declaration's 'core point', a 'Peace and Co-operation Zone' will be established over the Yellow Sea maritime border between the North and the South. This will not only link Seoul's port of Inchon with the nearby joint industrial zone across the border at Kaesong, it also grants Southern firms at Kaesong a convenient harbour at the Northern port of Haeju.

The zone could also reduce tensions: In 1999 and 2002, there were deadly naval clashes over the rich crab grounds spread across the border.

The plan also called for the Koreas to establish joint shipyards. The South is the world's top shipbuilder, but fears low-cost competition from China. Joint yards could give Korean builders access to cheaper labour than that in China.

There was more. Railway links over the border to Kaesong; Southern investment in the North's dilapidated road and rail networks; increased unions of divided families. And - in a populist move - southern flights to the sacred mountain of Baekdu, on the Chinese border.

Then, in a well-timed show of humility, Mr Roh apologised for making no progress on the issue of South Korean prisoners of war and abductees held in the North.

Analysts expressed surprise at the declaration's range and pragmatism. It meets Mr Roh's strategy of reducing military tension through building trust and economic co-operation. It also gives the South an increased footprint in the North; many in Seoul are worried that China is becoming too economically dominant there.

With Mr Roh out of office at the end of February, he will not have to implement the agreement - which is short on timings, detail, and most critically, cost. He has written a multibillion-dollar cheque his successor will have to decide whether to cash, one that also requires reams of fine print.

It was quite a comeback.

Few presidents are so unpopular with their supporters that their own parties disown the association to the point of changing their name, but such is Mr Roh's unhappy fate. This year, his Uri Party disintegrated, reforming as the United New Democrats. While Blue House sources deny Mr Roh is concerned about his legacy, the summit proved decisively that lack of support will not force him to go gently into the night as a lame duck.

Beyond the summit, there are achievements to which he can point.

He can claim a cleaner record than any predecessor. Unlike the families of former presidents, Mr Roh's kin have not been tarred with corruption. The hot news in Korea, an alleged influence-peddling scam by a presidential aide, is over a minor affair; its wide coverage indicates the right-wing media's animosity towards Mr Roh.

Despite never having travelled outside Korea before his election, and despite a stormy relationship with US President George W. Bush, Mr Roh has persuaded Washington, which is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, to take a soft approach towards North Korea. That strategy is now paying dividends, with the dismantling of Pyongyang's nuclear programme - at long last - under way.

In the face of opposition from his own party, Mr Roh sent the third-largest contingent of foreign troops into Iraq, an astute move that bought goodwill from Washington when it was desperate for allies. Moreover, it is virtually risk free: The Korean unit is deployed in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq, where they have undergone no combat. And in a pragmatic policy that dismayed many leftists, he pushed through a free-trade agreement with the United States.

A move more popular among liberals was Mr Roh's creation of the Kaesong joint industrial park in North Korea. Although only 24 small South Korean firms employing North Koreans are established there, the park provides a blueprint for inter-Korean co-operation.

Mr Roh's only previous high-level political experience was as minister of agriculture and fisheries, but the boy from nowhere beat a stodgy conservative candidate, Lee Hoi-chan, a former judge. Mr Roh won the 2002 election by a whisker on the strength of a last-minute mobile-phone campaign by youthful liberals. Many expected the new broom to sweep away traditional Korea's corrupt and chummy cobwebs. The establishment reacted ferociously.

In March 2004, Mr Roh was impeached by the conservative-dominated National Assembly over allegations of electoral improprieties. An angry public slaughtered the conservatives in parliamentary elections in April 2004. Mr Roh was acquitted in May. Ironically, the conservative Grand National Party was strengthened: it underwent an internal housecleaning and much of the old guard left politics, rejuvenating the party.

However, Mr Roh has disappointed many supporters.

Considering his reputation as a debater, his leadership style has been uninspiring for those who recall the firebrand lawyer who grilled ex-presidents Chun Do-hwan and Roh Tae-woo over human rights abuses during their days of authoritarian rule. In the face of opposition, Mr Roh has several times publicly suggested that he might step down.

A range of policies have failed to reign in soaring home prices, a key Roh focus. His flagship plan to relocate South Korea's capital away from over-centralised Seoul failed, largely due to opposition from leading presidential candidate Lee Myung-bak.

A lawyer by trade, Mr Roh has been unable to implement rule of law. Rampant power abuses - even violent crime - by Korea's powerful conglomerate chiefs have gone unpunished.

On the reverse side of the coin, Mr Roh has served his country well by removing presidential influence over the judiciary and the legislature.

His recent handling of the Afghanistan hostage crisis generated criticism abroad, with some foreign leaders openly critical of his negotiations with the Taleban.

Eight years of liberal rule appears destined to end with Mr Roh. Ahead of the December 19 election, conservative Mr Lee has approval ratings upwards of 50 per cent. The liberal candidates, whose primary takes place on October 14, have yet to crack double digits. Of the three liberal contenders, Mr Roh's favoured man, Lee Hae-chan, is trailing. Even the president's bounce following the summit looks unlikely to reverse that.

Mr Roh's next move is uncertain. The 61-year-old could play a statesman-like role from the sidelines, pushing for his declaration's implementation by the next administration.

But a Blue House source said he was considering a task unique for an ex-president: returning to the political melee by running for a seat in the National Assembly.