Tuesday, October 14, 2003

South Korea - Roh Should Go

An excellent piece in the Financial Times, courtesy of the NYT:

If Roh is to go, now is the time

By Aidan Foster-Carter

Last December, a narrow majority of (mainly younger) voters chose Roh Moo-hyun as South Korea's president. A political outsider and untried provincial populist, Mr Roh was a striking change from the suave elite figures who had hitherto dominated politics in Seoul.

Supporters saw him as a new broom, someone who would clean up a political culture mired in corruption and regional animosities, and stand up to an overweening US. Critics feared that he would sharpen divisions, including those with Washington, at a time when the North Korean nuclear crisis demanded careful handling of South Korea's uneasy core alliance.

Eight months into his five-year term, one must sadly say that the detractors seem vindicated. One of the world's most important economies and security flashpoints, at a critical point in its history, is led by a man who confesses he does not feel up to the job. It is hard to disagree with him.

On every front, Mr Roh is floundering. Cave-ins to militant trade unions encouraged others to follow suit, in a summer of strikes that has alarmed foreign investors and will hurt competitiveness. On corporate reform, there is no discernable policy. Last week the founding family at SK, the third-largest chaebol, brazenly won back control of the group, despite being convicted of a $1.1bn fraud earlier this year. The cleaner corporate governance pushed by Kim Dae-jung, Mr Roh's bold predecessor, is now in jeopardy.

Being rudderless at home is bad enough, but with a nuclear North Korea next door, it is positively alarming. To be fair, Mr Roh's Pollyanna pacifism echoes a large swath of South Korean opinion, which obstinately refuses to see evil or risk in its northern backyard. The idea that just being nicer to Kim Jong-il will mellow him is absurdly wishful thinking.

To this dismal record, Mr Roh has now added gratuitous political turbulence. Despite lacking a parliamentary majority - the national assembly is controlled by the rightwing opposition Grand National Party - he has let his supporters acrimoniously split the ruling Millennium Democratic Party, to create a new reformist group that hopes to win parliamentary elections due next April. Yet rather than join the new party, Mr Roh confusingly professes to remain above these squabbles.

Last Friday he added to the confusion by announcing that he wanted to seek a fresh popular mandate via a referendum; yesterday he set December 15 as the date. If he loses, he says he will step down in February, and presidential elections will accompany those for parliament.

The new waves of worry stirred by this quixotic gesture are the last thing South Korea needs right now. As Mr Roh admits, it is not clear if this is even constitutional; it is certainly quite unprecedented. Far from restoring calm, political in-fighting will get worse, distracting from sound policy.

Abroad, meanwhile, Mr Roh has made himself an even lamer duck than he already was. In North Korea and the US alike, a leader who might be out of office four months hence will be seen as having scant clout or mandate. This can only weaken South Korea in the six-party nuclear talks, if they ever reconvene, and in the delicate task of trying to trade sending South Korean troops to Iraq, as Washington wants, for greater US willingness to engage with North Korea.

Mr Roh's announcement looks like a last-ditch gamble to revive the "Roh wave" that saw him come from behind twice before: winning first primary elections, and then the presidency, despite lagging in the polls. But that will be a hard trick to pull off a third time. Though initial surveys suggest a majority might back him, this support could quickly erode. Before his announcement, his ratings had fallen below 30 per cent, unprecedentedly low at such an early stage of a Korean presidency.

South Korea cannot afford four more years like this. At least Mr Roh grasps that. Yet his latest gesture ensures continued short-term turbulence - with no guarantee, in a society whose divisions are hard-fought and run deep, that such an improvised test of opinion will deliver a clear-cut, acceptable verdict.

There is a better way. Candid to a fault, a risky virtue in high office, Mr Roh has more than once said he cannot do the job. Full candour requires one further step: to admit that the main problem is not ill-luck or prejudice, but rather that his own temperament and talents are simply not up to the demands of a position that he probably never expected to win.

He does not like the job; he is no good at the job. Then he should stand down, now; and let South Korean voters choose a new president who, whatever his or her ideology, at least shows signs of being able to stand the heat. That way, Roh Moo-hyun may yet earn his people's gratitude.

The writer is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, UK