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Profile of South Korean President-Elect Roh - 2002-12-20


Liberal human rights lawyer Roh Moo-hyun is president-elect of South Korea and in February will become South Korea's 16th president.

Ruling-party candidate Roh Moo-hyun has won a fiercely contested presidential race. Political analysts say his election could test Seoul's close alliance with Washington.

Mr. Roh, who defeated conservative Lee Hoi-chang by a margin of 2.3 percent, pledged in his victory speech to use his five-year presidential term to bring stability to the Korean Peninsula.

The United States and nations around the world are increasingly concerned that North Korea is developing weapons of mass destruction. Pyongyang revealed to a U.S. envoy in October that it has a secret nuclear weapons program underway.

Mr. Roh says he will try to open a new era of dialogue and harmony, even though the two Koreas remain technically at war since the Korean War ended in 1953 in an armed truce. He has pledged to continue the dialogue with the North started by out-going president, Kim Dae-jung.

The 56-year-old president-elect is a labor lawyer and human rights activist. He comes from a poor peasant family and could not afford to attend college. Instead, he worked as a night watchman and studied law on his own.

In 1981, Mr. Roh defended one of two dozen students arrested for possessing banned literature, for which the students were detained and tortured. He was inspired to become a human rights activist, and in 1987 became one of the leaders of a famous pro-democracy movement against the dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan.

Like President Kim Dae-jung, Mr. Roh was jailed for his role in the pro-democracy movement. He was sentenced to three weeks in prison in 1987 on charges of helping striking workers.

He entered politics in 1988, winning a seat in Parliament as a member of a pro-democracy party. He was in and out of parliament during the 1990s, suffering another defeat two years ago. But loyal followers launched a fan club and highly popular website, which helped him secure the presidency.

Mr. Roh's victory was considered unlikely six months ago, when he was trailing his conservative opponent in the polls. Corruption scandals in the ruling party appeared to be tarnishing Mr. Roh, even though he was not personally involved.

But two incidents apparently helped him secure a wider base of support. One was a short-lived alliance with another popular candidate, South Korea's top soccer official Chung Mong-joon. The second involved the deaths of two Korean girls.

In November, a U.S. military court acquitted two American solders after their armored vehicle hit and killed the two teenagers. Analysts say the torrent of rage toward the United States that followed translated into votes for Mr. Roh.

The president-elect says Seoul should be more assertive in its relationship with Washington. In the past, he lobbied for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. Now, he says he supports a strong security alliance, but on a more equal footing.

Thirty-seven thousand U.S. troops are based in the South to protect the country from an attack by the North. Mr. Roh reiterated his view that the legal code governing U.S. troops in South Korea should be revised.

But he also said he would cooperate with Washington on resolving the problem of North Korea's nuclear development.

"I think that what it does mean is that the issue of the future of U.S. troops, depending on the broader security context, is up for discussion and that it is impossible to rule out a scenario at this point that would involve the departure of U.S. troops," said Scott Snyder, the Asia Foundation's representative in South Korea. "Is all of this going to occur tomorrow? No. It is very much dependent on the broader security environment."

Analysts said Mr. Roh's victory symbolizes the emergence of South Korea's younger generation as a notable political force.

Many of the country's older people, who recall the nation's alliance with the United States during the Korean War, backed his rival Mr. Lee. They hoped Mr. Lee would maintain strong ties to Washington and take a hard-line stance toward Pyongyang.

Mr. Roh's supporters say they believe his more moderate approach is vital to stability on the Korean Peninsula.

One voter says Mr. Roh will solve the problem through dialogue, which the voter likes.

Another agrees that better relations with North Korea and resolving its nuclear program were the most important issues in the election.

As Mr. Roh prepares to assume power in February, his aides say he will focus on striking a balance with Washington on the North Korea issue. They also say the president-elect, who has never personally visited the United States, will send envoys to Washington to assure the Bush administration that he is a moderate in his views, and not a radical.

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