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Roh: The Jimmy Carter of Asia?
by Owen Rathbone, Ph.D.
24 June 2003

While the Korean media has already begun to compare South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun to Abraham Lincoln, a more realistic comparison might be to Jimmy Carter.

Although Roh Moo-hyun was only sworn in as South Korean president in late February, the Korean media has already begun favorably comparing him to Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s greatest presidents. Much has been made of Roh’s alleged Lincolnesque humility, sense of humor, and forthrightness. Roh himself has professed his admiration for Lincoln and spoken of parallels between the 19th century politician’s life and his own.

A more realistic comparison, however, might be to Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia who stunned the world by becoming America’s 39th president in 1976. Both Carter and Roh grew up in rural poverty and fashioned themselves into self-made men by dint of hard work. Both political figures also rose to prominence as “outsiders” pledging to clean up politics and make government more accountable to the people.

Carter began his tenure with high moral aspirations and a pledge to regard other nations’ human rights records as an integral factor in America’s international dealings. On the domestic front, he hoped to tear down racial, regional and religious barriers. Roh, a former human rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist, similarly began his presidency vowing to champion the causes of the poor, the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised.

Unfortunately, while Carter was immensely popular when he was elected, his approval rating when he left office was one of the lowest recorded among U.S. presidents. As a man, Carter was highly moral and well-intentioned, but at the helm of the White House he was a dismal failure. When Americans think of the Carter years, images of skyrocketing inflation and rampant unemployment come to mind. Americans recall as well how Carter sapped the public’s will to go on with his infamous “malaise speech” in 1979.

Carter’s foreign policy was another disaster of epic proportions. Carter may have given lip service to high sounding principles, but he proved woefully ineffectual in office. In his memoirs, for example, he agonized over “antagonizing” the former U.S.S.R. and putting the Kremlin “in an awkward position.” Carter’s feebleness only emboldened the Soviets, encouraging them to invade Afghanistan, the long-term result of which was an Islamic fundamentalist government hostile to U.S. interests.

Meanwhile, Carter coddled a Marxist government in Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega, switched loyalties from Taiwan to Red China, and allowed the Shah of Iran to fall to Ayatollah Khemeni and his Islamic fundamentalist supporters. Carter thought he was making sound ethical choices with such initiatives, but he only succeeded in making the world a more dangerous, oppressive and unstable place.

Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency is still in its infancy, but certain patterns are emerging that are strikingly reminiscent of the Carter administration. On the question of human rights, Roh recently promised to loosen restrictions on the radical organization Hanchongryun, known for its pro-North Korea sympathies and fierce anti-American rhetoric. Interestingly, however, Roh has had precious little to say about Kim Jong Il’s oppression of his people and the severe human rights violations in North Korea. Roh has instead stressed how important it is not to antagonize or provoke Pyongyang.

While pandering to North Korea and radical NGOs in South Korea, Roh in Carter-like fashion has chosen to demonize or at best offer lukewarm support to his country’s most steadfast ally, the U.S. Most observers agree that the Korean President rode a wave of anti-Americanism to office. When protesters by the thousands tore giant American flags and some Koreans even attacked American soldiers, Roh was conspicuously silent. When Washington recently requested assistance in the war in Iraq, Roh admitted to suffering “great anguish” in reaching his decision to send 700 Korean troops because the war was “unjustified.”

Roh currently faces a major economic crisis on the scale of his political twin Carter. Business performance is declining, consumer prices are soaring, and consumer confidence is down. In the wake of massive anti-American street demonstrations in Seoul and North Korea’s continued saber rattling, foreign direct investment in the past three months has plummeted 50 percent, while U.S. investment has plunged a staggering 70 percent. Conditions appear worse than the economic crisis of 1997, with economists forecasting stagflation, low economic growth and high inflation over the next few months.

The lesson the world learned from Jimmy Carter is that no matter how morally upright a president may be, the world is a complex place that cannot be controlled by good intentions alone. Moreover, a president who aims to please everyone will end up pleasing no one and can set an entire nation dangerously adrift. The most effective leaders, we can conclude, are pragmatic realists, not moral idealists. It is to be hoped that Roh changes his ways early. If he does not, he may very well go down in history as the Jimmy Carter of Asia.

Owen Rathbone is a Canadian resident of Seoul, Korea.

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