Just a week prior to the December 2002 South Korean presidential election that pitted progressive liberal Millennium Democratic Party candidate Roh Moo-hyun against the pro-U.S. conservative candidate Lee Hoi Chang, the Spanish Navy, then under the command of the neo-con Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, intercepted a North Korean freighter in the Arabian Sea after honoring a special request from the U.S. Navy. The Spaniards and the Bush administration immediately floated the news that the ship was carrying Scud missiles for Iraq, then under the leadership of Saddam Hussein. At the time, the neocons in Washington and Madrid were looking for any excuse to begin military operations against Iraq and ratchet up tensions with North Korea.
The seizure of the North Korean vessel So San almost sank Roh's candidacy for president of South Korea, since he favored continuation of the "Sunshine Policy" of incumbent South Korean President Kim Dae-jung of rapprochement with North Korea at the same time the Bush administration was branding North Korea, Iraq, and Iran and an "Axis of Evil." The term "Axis of Evil" had already been conjured up by a cabal of neocons that included Bush speechwriters David Frum and Michael Gerson, State Department counter-proliferation undersecretary John Bolton, and House of Representatives apparatchik Yossef Bodansky.
The interception of the North Korean vessel and discovery of Scuds also came as a total surprise to Kim's government in Seoul, including top South Korean intelligence officials. The Son Sanwas permitted to continue to Hodeida, Yemen after being stopped by the Spanish Navy. Yemen maintained that the North Korean vessel was carrying cement, but the U.S. Navy insisted it seized Scud missiles. During the 1994 Yemeni civil war, in which the Clinton administration backed the victorious North Yemenis over South Yemen, the United States permitted the North to buy Scud missiles from the North Koreans. In fact, the North Korean ship was transporting 15 Scuds, conventional warheads, Scud missile parts, and missile fuel for the Yemenis. The parts were for missiles procured by Sana'a during the Yemeni civil war and approved by the Clinton administration. The missiles were transported to a Yemeni missile base near Sana'a after delivery to Hodeida.
The Spanish paper El Pais wrote that the entire incident with the North Korean vessel had been staged by Washington to send a warning to North Korea. However, it appears that the actual target of the naval incident was to try to influence the South Korean presidential election, which was one week away. Then-Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz played a leading role in negotiating with the Yemenis over the release of the missiles and the North Korean ship.
The conservative Grand National Party immediately went on the offensive against Roh and his Sunshine Policy with the North after the seizure of the North Korean ship. Its candidate Lee was narrowly trailing Roh in polls and it was clear the U.S. seizure of the North Korean ship was intended to influence the South Korean electorate. It was also clear that the Bush administration favored Lee over Roh and was prepared to do anything to bring about a victory for Lee and his right-wingers. Some political observers in Seoul blamed the Bush administration for staging the naval incident in a bid to help Lee.
However, younger voters, who opposed the U.S. hegemony over South Korea and wanted better relations with the North, made the difference and handed Roh a victory and the neocons in Washington a bitter pill.
In 2004, South Korea's two main opposition parties impeached Roh. The nation's Constitutional Court reinstated Roh three days after his impeachment. In October 2007, Roh held a meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong Il amid heavy criticism from Washington after the North detonated its first nuclear weapon.
Roh was being investigated by South Korean prosecutors for allegedly accepting bribes from Taekwang Industries chairman Park Yeon-cha. However, prosecutors were not keen on investigating similar alleged bribes paid by the South Korean tycoon to friends of Roh's pro-American successor Lee Myung-bak.
On May 22, Roh reportedly committed suicide by jumping off a cliff near his home in Busan. Roh had allegedly gone on an early-morning hike. Roh's alleged suicide note includes the sentence: "Don't blame anybody."
Taekwang, which stands accused of paying bribes to Roh, was a major player in the South Korean cable television market in 2007. Taekwang MSO's major cable competitors were entities controlled by or linked to the Carlyle Group.