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Personality Spotlight: Roh Tae-woo -- new South Korean president

Roh Tae-woo, a born-again democrat who promises to dismantle the autocratic government he helped erect with his predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan, Thursday became the first president in South Korean history to assume power peacefully.

Roh, 55, a former four-star general who backed Chun in a 1979 coup that later brought the outgoing president to power, was a loyal foot-soldier to Chun during Chun's seven years of strongman rule.

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He had been certain to succeed Chun when the president decided last April to use a rubber-stamp electoral college to elect his successor. But two months later Roh's nomination as the ruling party candidate triggered street riots across the country.

The protests continued for three weeks, raising fears of another military crackdown in a nation that has been ruled by a succession of military leaders since its formation in 1948.

In a historic address on June 29, Roh agreed to opposition demands for a direct election and said he would halt the authoritarian practices of the government he helped forge.

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Some analysts say Roh's stern military demeanor softened during seven years in civilian posts, and that the June riots were an opportunity to break with his military past and distance himself from the steely Chun.

His 'June 29 declaration' of sweeping democratic reforms was widely viewed as a brilliant political move, ending the demonstrations that had rocked the country of 43 million and wresting from the opposition its main political platform.

The declaration, along with liberal use of the bureaucracy and government funds, is credited with creating a groundswell of support for Roh that led to his narrow victory in the Dec. 16 election over an opposition split between Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae Jung.

Roh won 36 percent of the vote, while some 55 percent of voters divided their ballots between the two main opposition candidates.

Opposition politicians, dissidents and student activists believe the rioting forced Roh to concede to the pro-democracy movement but doubt he will institute further reforms unless pushed by the continuing threat of more unrest.

Diplomats and political observers believe Roh is acutely aware he is a minority president and must move swiftly after his inauguration to show he will keep his promise to dismantle the bureaucracy of suppression built over years of military rule.

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And Roh says he will move quickly to reform the government, allowing greater freedom of the press, protection of human rights and labor rights and autonomy for provincial and local governments.

Officials said one of Roh's first official acts will be to grant a sweeping amnesty of political prisoners jailed by the Chun government.

As one of the key generals who helped propel Chun into the Blue House, the presidential residency, Roh subsequently held a series of important posts, including minister of state for National Security, Internal Affairs and president of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, which he will retain after he takes office.

Roh also served as president of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee, president of the Korean Amateur Sports Association and the Korean Olympic Committee.

Roh's ascent to the Blue House through a free election marks a historic point in South Korea's political development.

South Korea was proclaimed an independent state Aug. 15, 1948. Its first president was toppled in 1950 during nationwide protests, the second stepped down after a coup, the third was assassinated and the fourth served briefly as a caretaker and was shoved out after Chun's military coup.

Roh is married to Kim Ok Sook and has a son and a daughter.

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