The one Lincoln lesson that Roh should learn
By John Parker

On December 19 last year, Roh Moo-hyun, the underdog political activist and nominee of the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), was elected the ninth president of South Korea. Most accounts of the election in the international press described it as a come-from-behind contest in which Roh rode a groundswell of anti-American sentiment to electoral success.

But one detail seemed strikingly at odds with this interpretation: the candidate described Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States during the American civil war, as his political idol. Even a cursory examination of Roh's interest in Lincoln shows it to be deep and sincere. Bizarrely, however, Roh seems to misunderstand the basic lesson of Lincoln's presidency: Lincoln used force, at an appalling cost in human life, to reunify his divided country. But Roh was elected by advocating a policy of peace at almost any price.

Indeed, some of Roh's rhetoric bore discomfiting similarities to the views of the former Republic of Vietnam's last president, the accommodationist Duong Van "Big" Minh, who also advocated peace and reconciliation in his divided country. Minh's tenure came to an end after only 48 hours in office, as communist tanks battered down the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon. Whether Roh's career will more closely resemble Lincoln's or Minh's remains to be seen, but the question is critical to 70 million Koreans and to the future of northeast Asia.

There were many surprising aspects to Roh's victory: he is a liberal in a country famed for its conservatism. His party, the MDP, was widely considered to have been discredited by corruption scandals during the previous administration. He is a high school graduate who did not attend college in a society where university attendance is considered a prerequisite for success. And he has been noted for his anti-American views, in a nation which owes its political existence to the US.

Ironically, it was a traffic accident that converted the last of these "liabilities" into an asset that carried Roh all the way to Blue House (Korea's presidential mansion). On June 13 of last year, an armored vehicle driven by US soldiers on a training exercise ran over two Korean school girls, killing them instantly. Despite profuse, immediate US apologies for the accident and generous compensation to the girls' families, the incident eventually led to a wave of passionate anti-US demonstrations on Korean streets, especially after the two soldiers most directly involved were acquitted in separate court martial proceedings accusing them of negligent homicide.

The demonstrations turned an election campaign that had mostly been about ruling party corruption into a referendum on Korea's relationship with the US. In this environment, the candidate perceived (rightly or wrongly) by the electorate as the most anti-American had an automatic advantage, and most Koreans clearly believed Roh Moo-Hyun to be that man.

Much was made of the fact that Roh had never visited the US (unusual for Korean presidents); that he had once called for the withdrawal of US troops; that he had, during his democracy-activist days, associated with others who had even more radical anti-American views. Still, the candidate himself was careful not to make comments that could be interpreted by older, more conservative voters as reckless: Roh answered queries about US-related relations by blandly promising that he would "endeavor to enhance the relations of the two countries to a more balanced level based on reciprocity".

Such cautious answers showed what a sophisticated, careful politician he had become, after an uneven political career that included four losses in previous campaigns (remarkably, Roh's presidential victory increased his win-loss record in elections to only 3-4). But the mere perception that Roh was anti-American was enough for many voters to choose him over his most significant opponent, Lee Hoi-Chang; Lee's conservatism and distrust of North Korean intentions made it easy to depict him as the Bush administration's lapdog.

With North Korea busily ejecting International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, launching test missiles and hurling threats in every direction, it is hardly surprising that Roh's election caused a certain amount of nervousness in Washington. This was exacerbated after the election when a representative sent by the president-elect to meet senior Bush officials sent shock waves through US government circles by reportedly asserting that South Korea would prefer a nuclear-armed North Korea to a sudden North Korean collapse, although eyewitnesses would later say that the representative had been misquoted. In spite of such missteps, and the circumstances of his election, it would be gravely mistaken to simplistically paint Roh as anti-American. The most compelling demonstration of this was, and remains, Roh's astounding (and highly publicized) admiration of Abraham Lincoln.

In an apparent response to international interest in Roh's Lincoln connection, the Korea Information Service produced an English-language pamphlet after the election entitled "Roh Moo-Hyun's Encounter With Lincoln". Cynics could be forgiven for thinking that this was merely the president's attempt to smooth ruffled American feathers, but nothing could be further from the truth. Roh's admiration for Lincoln is genuine and profound.

The pamphlet itself largely derives from sections of Roh's own book on Lincoln. It is remarkable enough that a busy politician like Roh could have found the time between 2000 and 2001 to write such a book (he was serving as minister of maritime affairs during this period), but the book itself is even more remarkable for the insight it gives into Roh's political philosophy, the man himself, and where he might lead South Korea.

According to the book, Roh first discovered Lincoln in elementary school and regarded him simply as "honest and great". However, on April 13, 2000, while awaiting the results of vote-counting for the 2000 General Assembly election, an election which he ultimately lost, Roh happened to read one of Lincoln's greatest speeches, his second inaugural address of March 4, 1865. This is the speech which contains the famous passage:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Roh described this "exciting reunion" with Lincoln as "thrilling" and "inspiring", and even went so far as to compare it with Mahatma Gandhi's famous encounter with a segregationist at a South African train station (Pietermaritzburg), and the apostle Paul's meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus. The experience so moved him that only three days later, in a concession editorial published in the Shisa Journal, Roh not only echoed Lincoln's themes of forgiveness and reconciliation, but urged his readers to study Lincoln and learn from his example. And this was not all: Roh followed up his Shisa Journal article with a "self-imposed assignment" to write a book on Lincoln. Whatever Roh's lack of academic credentials, as a student of Lincoln he certainly proved to be industrious and determined: Roh Moo-Hyun Meets Lincoln was published by Hak-go-jae the following year.

Though not all of the book, to my knowledge, has been published in English, the excerpts that have been are fascinating. Clearly, a major reason for Roh's admiration of Lincoln is the similarity between the two men's lives: both were men from humble backgrounds who rose to lead their countries at times of national division. Both had little formal education, but became lawyers, then politicians in spite of this shortcoming. Both were reformers who suffered numerous political setbacks before attaining high office. Both were famously plain-spoken.

But Roh seems to be most fascinated by those characteristics which he sees as lacking in Korean politics, or in his own personality. For example, Roh lauds Lincoln's "reconciliation and love", because he sees it as the antithesis of the winner-take-all, zero-sum character of Korean politics. Although foreigners typically perceive Korea as homogeneous, in reality, Korean society has often been characterized by major interregional and intergroup divisions: not only between North and South, but between different regions of South Korea; labor and management groups; political parties (which often correspond to geographical regions); and most recently, between a conservative older generation and a more radicalized younger generation. Referring to Lincoln's 1865 speech, Roh says: "the oration of anguished Lincoln makes me feel ashamed of our political reality", and he excoriates the practice of "fueling anger and hatred among different groups".

Roh also approves of Lincoln's pragmatism, describing him as "a strategical realist who always confronted reality, not falling prey to illusions". Some of the president's recent policy decisions, such as sending Korean troops to Iraq, might have surprised his supporters who expected a greater degree of dissociation from US policies. But no one who had read Roh's book on Lincoln could have been surprised: Roh admires, and is now seeking to emulate, Lincoln's "[seeking for] the best within a realistic boundary". Roh also admires Lincoln's realism because he believes this quality has been lacking in Korean politicians, including the famous patriot Kim Gu, whom Roh always cites as his other political hero. Regarding Kim Gu, Roh wonders "why are venerable men in [Korea's] modern history all losers? Although [he] was certainly a righteous man, he was a loser in real politics." To Roh, Lincoln's "cautiously calculated steps" were inspiring because they showed "promising evidence that 'justice will prevail'."

Roh praises many of Lincoln's personal qualities, including "honesty", "sincerity", and "wisdom", in addition to his political success. But surprisingly, the quality he stresses most is Lincoln's "graciousness, something not easily found in other successful men". Roh uses this quality to argue against "some people in Korea" who "feel nostalgic for the era of Park Chung-Hee, a strongman", saying pointedly that "a strong leadership is not synonymous with a repressive leadership ... only [a harmonious, horizontal, liberal and autonomous] leadership can heal the divided Korean peninsula and cure the chronic disease of our society, that is, regional and inter-class confrontation."

Lastly, Roh coins the phrase "humble power" to describe Lincoln's political approach, calling him "the model of an unassuming man creating a strong country with humble power". As the president plaintively observes: "[Korean] history has created a misleading concept that it is inevitable to take an unjust path to success and that honesty hampers success. It is high time that we create a society in which honest and hard-working people and fair competition succeed." To Roh, simply stated, Lincoln's "righteous path" is an example worthy of emulation.

Towards the end of his book, Roh states that "Our times, in which the entire Korean people, divided in the south and north, and the east and west, remain at constant strife, seem to be analogous to the times of Lincoln." This is an obvious connection to make, and clearly does a great deal to explain Roh's interest in the late American president.

But this is also why, to a reader familiar with the American Civil War period, there seems to be a peculiar gap in Roh's understanding of Lincoln. As noted, Roh admires Lincoln for his reconciliation, love, honesty, pragmatism, graciousness, and "humble power". But Lincoln isn't considered a great president by Americans because of these qualities. He is considered great because he preserved the Union - ie, he prevented the US from fracturing into two nations. And this achievement was not effected by Lincoln's personal qualities per se: it was effected by a massive application of military force, accompanied by levels of bloodshed so appalling that they make the September 11 attacks look like the proverbial Sunday picnic.

Casualty figures from the American Civil War are shocking, especially to those who may be predisposed, based only on very recent history, to regard the US as the instigator of wars which invariably result in many foreign deaths and few American ones. A few examples will suffice: at the battle of Antietam, over 22,000 men were killed or wounded in a single day. The more than 40,000 casualties at Gettysburg included at least 5,000 dead; in places, the battlefield literally ran red with blood. The estimate for the total military death toll, including Union and Confederate dead, is 623,000 (although most were killed by disease, not in battle).

Civilians were not spared: Richmond, Savannah and Atlanta were burned to the ground. Thousands died in the New York City draft riots. And epidemics swept through civilian and military alike during and after the war. It is worth pointing out, too, that these deaths occurred in a far more sparsely populated US than exists today: the US population in 1860 was a mere 31 million (less than one-ninth of the contemporary figure). Thus, these military death tolls constituted a startling 2 percent of the entire US population at that time, making them even more significant than they appear at first sight.

The most astounding thing about Roh's book on Lincoln - at least those parts of it which have been translated - is that he never mentions Lincoln's use of force, and the loss of life which resulted. For all his arduous research, Roh seems to have missed the main point: it is as though he had written a biography of Tiger Woods, praising his personal qualities at great length, without ever once mentioning that Woods plays golf.

Roh never seems to make the connection between Lincoln's decision to use force to reunify the divided US, and the fact that he, as the new president of South Korea, might conceivably be called on to use force to effect the reunification of Korea. If Roh is known for any single policy position, it is his repeated statement that "the North Korean nuclear weapons issue must be resolved peacefully and through dialogue."

But his hero Lincoln didn't resolve the secession issue peacefully and through dialogue: he resolved it militarily, by crushing the Confederacy with superior numbers and industrial output. To be sure, Roh is not wrong to think that Lincoln was a great advocate of reconciliation. But the time for this reconciliation came only after the military turning point of the conflict; Lincoln's "with malice towards none" remark was made in 1864, after it was clear to most observers that the Union would eventually win the war.

Unfortunately for Roh, the ultimate resolution of the Korean civil war is not yet so clear, at least not to the North Koreans. However compelling the humanitarian motives for North-South reconciliation, is it realistic to call for reconciliation when North Korea is still digging tunnels into South Korea (an action which has no conceivable defensive purpose), and steadily building up its conventional forces just north of the demilitarized zone? Actions such as these, even more clearly than North Korea's budding nuclear program, demonstrate the North's intentions: it doesn't want coexistence, it wants to win. And South Korean leaders forget this at their grave peril.

Many specific actions taken by Roh since his election - such as highly publicized visits to American bases and his recent sending of noncombat forces to Iraq - show that he has no intention of allowing the US/South Korea alliance to wither. It appears that Roh will not let down South Korea's military guard. But if he ever did, a ghost stalking the corridors of history would surely remind him of the risks of alienating his American ally, and that ghost isn't Lincoln. He is Duong Van "Big" Minh, the last president of the late Republic of Vietnam (aka South Vietnam).

Overly facile comparisons should not be made between Roh and Minh; after all, a false equation of Vietnam with Korea by some American leaders was a major factor in the Vietnam fiasco. Nonetheless, disturbing parallels do exist, however unfashionable it might be to point them out. Minh, like Roh, was a charismatic, well-liked politician who sought a moderate "third way" between communism and hardline anti-communism.

Minh, too, sought accommodation and reconciliation between the halves of his painfully divided nation: as he famously announced in 1975, "The Republic of Vietnam policy is the policy of peace and reconciliation, aimed at saving the blood of our people." The similarity to Roh's stated policy towards North Korea is apparent. Unfortunately for Minh, less than an hour after he spoke those words over Vietnamese radio, North Vietnamese tanks broke down the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon and completed the conquest of South Vietnam. Minh had been in office only two days.

The fate of Duong Van Minh after reunification ought to interest Roh as he ponders the implications of North Korean military deployments. During the war, the North Vietnamese carefully avoided criticizing Minh; partly because his brother Duong Van Nhut was a high-ranking general in the North Vietnamese army, but it was also because Hanoi wanted to encourage neutralist forces in the South in order to make their final victory less difficult. Consequently, Minh, unlike most other senior South Vietnamese officials, was not arrested after reunification; he simply disappeared into his Saigon villa, raising orchids and birds, for eight years.

There was speculation that the communists intended to provide him with a political role in the post-reunification government. This proved incorrect; like communist parties everywhere else in the world, the Vietnamese version was too paranoid to allow the political participation of any person who was, in their estimation, less than completely trustworthy. In 1983 Minh finally went into exile; first to France, then finally to the US.

On August 7, 2001, after a fall at his California home, he died at a Pasadena hospital at the age of 86. He had wanted to spend his last days in Vietnam, but poor health made that impossible. Respectful, if not complimentary, notices appeared in the party-controlled newspapers in Vietnam; this was permitted by the government on the grounds that Minh had hastened the end of the war. But few mourned him in the US.

Vietnamese-Americans, probably the most anti-communist of any American ethnic group, still mostly regarded him as a traitor to the cause of the late Republic. In Vietnamese museums today, Minh barely exists: small, grainy, unflattering photographs of him, Nguyen Van Thieu, General Khanh, Ngo Dinh Diem and other South Vietnamese leaders are helpfully labeled "leaders of the Saigon puppet regime", for the edification of young Vietnamese students and foreign visitors.

These museums should be required viewing for South Korean politicians as they contemplate the future of the US/ROK alliance. Again, Vietnam is not Korea for a thousand reasons. But Vietnam, too, had anti-American street protests by young people calling for the withdrawal of US troops. Many South Vietnamese also decried deaths of their countrymen at American hands, while ignoring the vast death toll attributable to the Northern communists, in manmade famines, purges and other atrocities.

The Vietnamese demonstrators achieved their goal: the US tired of the conflict and left. But the result was not the peaceful reconciliation they longed for - it was military conquest of the South by the North. Within three years of the withdrawal of American forces, the Republic of Vietnam no longer existed; it had been forcibly annexed by the single-party dictatorship of North Vietnam. Virtually the entire professional class of South Vietnam - professors, doctors, managers and bureaucrats - either languished for years in communist "re-education" camps or fled outright.

Vietnamese starved as the South's market economy plunged into a communist time warp for the next 14 years. Only since the introduction in 1989 of the famous doi moi economic reform policy - a policy which, in practical terms, appears strikingly similar to the state-directed capitalism adopted by Park Chung-Hee in South Korea - did things begin to improve in Vietnam. And even after 14 years of reform, Vietnam remains far behind its non-communist neighbors. Although the reunification of the country has certainly brought many benefits, is this really an example that South Koreans should emulate?

Ironically, one important consequence of South Vietnam's collapse, long since forgotten by most, was a strengthening of the Washington-Seoul alliance. With the memories of the Republic of Vietnam's startling implosion so fresh, then-president Park Chung-Hee took great care to maintain good relations with the US. Twenty-eight years on, has the prudent example he set been forgotten? South Korea's destiny now lies in Roh Moo-Hyun's hands. His pragmatism since taking office shows that he is aware of the slippery slope that led to South Vietnam's downfall and has no intention of sliding down it. But truly living up to the legacy of his hero, Abraham Lincoln, would require much more than simply preserving the status quo: it would require putting the military option for reunification back on the table. And of this Roh has given no sign.

Of course, there are extremely good reasons for taking force off the table, eg, Seoul's proximity to North Korean artillery, and the frightful possibility of nuclear weapons use on the crowded Korean peninsula. The possibility of following the German model instead, which always seems to dangle just out of reach as Pyongyang lurches from one crisis to the next, is another excellent reason to reject the "Lincoln model" for reunification at this time. Unfortunately, North Korea is not defeated, and still wants the Vietnamese model. Officially at least, Roh excludes all three of these historical models in favor of some kind of gradual reconciliation leading over many years to reunification. But what will he do if North Korean intransigence, or American unwillingness to tolerate North Korean nuclear weapons, forces him to choose between the path of Lincoln and the path of "Big" Minh?

John Parker is a freelance writer. He has lived in Korea, China, and Vietnam.

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May 20, 2003

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