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George W. Bush honors former President Roh Moo-hyun in South Korea

By Thomas Maresca
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George W. Bush honors former President Roh Moo-hyun in South Korea
Former U.S. President George W. Bush (3rd from R) attends a ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun at Bongha Village in Gimhae, South Korea. Photo by Yonhap 

SEOUL, May 23 (UPI) -- Former President George W. Bush was in South Korea on Thursday to pay tribute to his counterpart, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun at an event marking the 10th anniversary of Roh's death.

Bush gave a short eulogy at the service, which was held in Roh's hometown of Gimhae, about 280 miles southeast of Seoul, and presented a portrait he had painted of Roh to the former president's family.

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"I painted a kind and sympathetic man," Bush said. "I painted a man who respected the fundamental rights of all citizens and today I pray that his vision for human rights for Korea will extend North across the border."

While Bush spoke warmly of Roh, he also alluded to the sometimes contentious relationship the two leaders had while in office, a period which overlapped during Roh's 2003-08 term.

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"I painted a strong leader who was not afraid to speak his mind, even to the president of the United States," Bush said.

The presidents' differences were highlighted by contrasting stances toward the North Korean nuclear threat. Bush favored maintaining a hard-line approach, while the liberal Roh advocated diplomatic engagement with the North in a continuation of his predecessor Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy."

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Roh, a lawyer with a background in the country's democracy and labor movements, also took a stance of greater independence from the United States in diplomatic matters, winning office on vows that he would be the first South Korean leader "not to kowtow to Americans."

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Bush's former defense secretary, Robert Gates, later described Roh as "anti-American" in a 2014 memoir, Duty.

At the same time, Roh supported Bush by dispatching troops to Iraq despite opposition from his own supporters and signed a landmark bilateral free trade agreement with the United States.

Bush and Roh also worked together on the six-party talks, an effort to end North Korea's nuclear program through negotiations involving China, the United States, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia.

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Launched in 2003, the talks ultimately stalled when North Korea walked out of negotiations in 2009. A year later, Pyongyang revealed a massive new uranium enrichment facility at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

Roh died of suicide on May 23, 2009, by jumping off a cliff near his retirement home. He had been under investigation by state prosecutors for a corruption scandal that implicated several of his relatives and aides, a major blow to the image he had cultivated as a clean politician.

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Before attending the memorial, Bush met with current President Moon Jae-in at the presidential Blue House in Seoul. Moon was Roh's chief of staff and close friend and has revisited his mentor's approach of engagement with Pyongyang since taking office in 2017.

Moon's April 2018 inter-Korean summit with Kim Jong Un was the first such meeting since Roh met then-leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in October 2007. Moon has gone on to hold two more summits with Kim Jong Un.

Moon said Bush's visit was symbolic of a "strong alliance" between the United States and South Korea, according to Blue House spokeswoman Ko Min Jung at a press briefing. Bush and Roh played a major role in strengthening that alliance through efforts such as the free trade agreement and Six-Party Talks, Moon added.

Bush remembered a personal relationship with Roh forged over discussions about family, not politics, and said the South Korean leader always spoke in a "straightforward and frank" manner, the spokeswoman said.

Moon did not attend the memorial service, but first lady Kim Jung Sook took part in the event. According to organizers, more than 17,000 mourners turned out for the service, which was also attended by government officials including Prime Minister Lee Nak Yon, National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee Sang and leaders of Korea's political parties.

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