South Korea's Lee Must Walk a Fine Line after Predecessor's Suicide

Three weeks before the suicide Saturday of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, a truck driver in the central city of Daejeon hanged himself from a tree after being dogged by police for allegedly organizing "illegal" protests. On a rainy weekend not long after, the transport union he was a member of staged a rally in his honor and to kick off a labor strike. When riot guards closed in on the march, they were charged at by a group of angry demonstrators wielding bamboo sticks.

The ensuing clash left more than 100 injured and shocked incumbent leader Lee Myung-bak, who called for a return to the rule of law.

Now, amid a wave of emotion by a nation shocked at Roh's death, the possibility is growing that the coming weeks will see similar violence, at a time when the country probably would do better to be concentrating on the growing tension with the north, which appears to have set off what it says is a second nuclear device and launched a missile this week.

How the government responds will be key not only to repairing damaged public trust, but also to restoring its ability to function. The nation's parliament is deeply divided along party lines, and members of the left have a habit of staging paralyzing sit-ins to show solidarity with their constituents.

Lee is keenly aware of the potential for his predecessor's death to become political dynamite. The notion that Roh's suicide was actually "murder" at the hands of an eager corruption probe is already gaining traction, inviting supporters to throw eggs at political opponents coming to pay their last respects.

But current government efforts to stem the threat of destabilization are counterproductive. When it dispatched thousands of police around Seoul city hall, intending to block off a hastily organized memorial rally for Roh the day he threw himself off a cliff, the administration ratcheted up tension and solidified in the minds of many Korean progressives that they live in something like a police state.

Indeed, recent large-scale civic action here has seen the escalation of suppression tactics. It has been just over a year since this capital rocked with the footsteps of thousands of candle-bearing protesters who demanded the ouster of President Lee after his wildly unpopular decision to reopen the local market to US beef. Those rallies saw the use of tear gas and water cannons for the first time in over a decade, tools that were again turned against demonstrators on May Day this year as they marked the anniversary of the so-called candlelight protests.

A worse move was the government's public cancellation of what had seemed to be a perfectly legitimate bribery investigation into a web of high-level officials. This was premature, an over-reaction in an attempt to display tact. Not only did this legitimize claims that the probe was responsible for Roh's death, but it has undermined Lee's drive for increased accountability. Numerous columnists and commentators have pointed out that every single South Korean leader since the 1980s has either gone to prison or faced corruption charges at the minimum following the end of his term, raising suspicions that retribution is at least as important a motivation as the will to out corruption.

It is worth noting that prosecution in South Korea is often a selective matter, especially when it comes to corporate crime. In April last year, a special prosecutor cleared Samsung Group, Korea's largest chaebol, and its chairman Lee Kun-Hee of bribery and slush fund allegations in the face of what seemed to be overwhelming evidence of rampant palm-greasing. Nor is Samsung alone. The country's major conglomerates have received a remarkable pass from law enforcement for major violations of the law.

In 2007, a court suspended the 18-month prison term for criminal assault of Kim Seung-youn, the chairman of chemical and insurance giant Hanwha Group, the country's ninth largest conglomerate, after he appeared in court wearing a hospital gown and saying he was the victim of deteriorating health. Earlier the same week, the three-year prison sentence of Chung Mong-koo, the chairman of Hyundai Motor Group, for embezzlement and fraud was suspended on appeal after the company offered to donate nearly US$1 billion to charity. The court took Chung up on the offer, saying his value to the Korean economy was such that he should not serve any time in jail, though he was ordered to perform community service.

Like the beef protests, which drew opposition lawmakers out into the streets amid hysterics over mad cow disease, Roh's death may become an opportunity for the left to blockade new government initiatives. (Parliament is set to open a special session next month to handle a slew of controversial media reform bills, but already there is talk of conservatives laying low.)

The decisions made in the immediate aftermath of Roh's death cannot be undone, but Lee still has the chance to tread sensitively and firmly. He should reduce police presence in a show of good faith in his citizens. And if he really intends to restore the rule of law, he would do well to introduce more systemic anti-corruption measures that would include his own party. In the end, it may be enough to stay an uprising.