Death of former South Korean leader prompts deeper look at reconciliation with North

President Lee has reversed the softer approach of his predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun, who committed suicide over the weekend

Ahn Young-joon/AP
Mourners wait at an incense burning service for former President Roh Moo-hyun at Jogye temple in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, May 26, 2009. The sound of wailing pierced the air as tens of thousands of South Koreans streamed to a rural village Sunday to pay their respects to Roh a day after he killed himself by jumping off a rocky cliff overlooking his home.

The legacy of South Korea's attempts at reconciliation with North Korea endures in emotions over the suicide of the former president, Roh Moo Hyun, even as his conservative successor, President Lee Myung Bak, rallies the South in response to North Korea's nuclear test and missile launches.

Tens of thousands of people have visited the home of Mr. Roh, near the southeastern port of Pusan, to offer condolences, and the government is braced for thousands more demonstrating on Friday during a state funeral on the grounds of a historic palace near the Blue House, the center of presidential power.

Top officials, along with defenders and critics of both President Lee and Roh, will attend the funeral for a man whose policies Lee has reversed in the 15 months since his inauguration and a lopsided victory over a candidate endorsed by Roh.

Limited to a single five-year term by South Korea's Constitution, Roh had hoped to perpetuate reconciliation with the North through the candidacy of a former unification minister.

Corruption charges against Roh

The rapid succession of the death of Roh, who leaped into a ravine Saturday, and then of North Korea's nuclear test on Monday, focuses attention on the contrasting approaches of the two South Korean leaders.

"It is a very difficult moment," says Lee Chang-chong, a former ambassador. "The left wing might take to the streets nationwide. They are saying Roh was killed by political revenge. President Lee must suffer in the coming months."

The act of revenge, as Roh's advocates call it, was an investigation into charges that Roh, his wife, son, and daughter had received approximately $6 million in bribes during his presidency. Roh, often portrayed in the media as "Mr. Clean," said he did not know about the payoffs, but prosecutors seemed determined to press charges.

Lee's critics charge that the investigation was a deliberate attempt to smear Roh and his political associates as well as his relatives. They note that Lee himself was involved in a scandal before his election.

All three sons of Kim Dae Jung, the president who initiated the Sunshine policy of reconciliation with North Korea after his election in 1997, were convicted on corruption charges during his presidency. Mr. Kim was investigated for authorizing a payoff of approximately $500 million to North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il to agree to invite him to Pyongyang for the first North-South Korean summit in June 2000.

Lee: aid to North linked to verification

Lee, at the outset of his presidency, pledged to help bring the gross national product of North Koreans, on an average annual basis, to $3,000 a year. But he cut off the shipments of humanitarian aid of several hundred thousand tons of rice and fertilizer authorized by the two previous presidents.

He insisted North Korea first had to agree on "verification" of everything North Korea said it was doing to disable its nuclear facilities – the same demand made by the United States.

North Korea, ever since, has been denouncing him as a "traitor" and "lackey" of the US.

"Many people blame Lee Myung Bak for North Korea's nuclear test," says Kim Im-sik, an office worker in Seoul. "He was pushing too hard."

Joining Proliferation Security Initiative

Lee is responding more strongly than ever to North Korea's nuclear and missile tests, finally giving approval on Tuesday to South Korea's full membership in the US-backed Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

South Korean officials have said South Korean forces would not attempt to stop or board North Korean vessels suspected of carrying missiles or nuclear materiel, as intended under PSI, but North Korea earlier declared that South Korea's joining PSI would be considered "an act of war."

In South Korea, leftists and conservatives debate intensely on the differences between Roh and Lee on a wide range of issues.

"Roh was pursuing a peace policy toward North Korea," says Lee Chung-geun, international director of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a powerful organization with strong ties to the far left of the Korean spectrum. "President Lee has very repressive policies. He was creating tensions between the two Koreas and destroying the policies initiated by the previous presidents."

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