Farewell to “Foolish President” Roh Moo-hyun

Koreans paying their last respects before motorcade leaves Seoul. (Photo credit: ohmynews.com)

Former president of Korea Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2007) died of severe head injuries suffered in a suicide attempt on May 23. Today (May 29) saw his national funeral and cremation. Thousands gathered in the city center to pay their last respects.

I was no supporter of the late President. I didn’t even vote for him since I was in the States at that time. But his death shocked me and truly saddened me.

I’ll say upfront that I do not condone suicide for any reason. But his death does reveal some ugly truths and disturbing trend about Korean society: it has consistently went after its leaders with a vengeance after they leave office.

  • Park Jung-hee (1963-79): We all know his term ended in his assassination. I actually remember crying. I was 10 at the time.
  • Chun Doo-hwan (1980-88): Indicted for embezzlement, corruption and abuse of power. In 1996, he was convicted and sentenced to death for treason and mutiny in his rise to power. Later pardoned
  • Roh Tae-woo (1988-93): In 1996, along with president Chun Doo-hwan, for corruption, indicted treason and mutiny. His sentence of 22 1/2 years in prison was later pardoned.
  • Kim Young-sam (1993-98): Ironically Kim who lead the anti-corruption investigations into this two successors, and in an attempt to reform powerful politically-tied Chaebols, found himself in a corruption scandal that implicated his son.
  • Kim Dae-jung (1993-2003): Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2000. He was later determined to have arranged his much publicized meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, only after an alleged payment (read: bribe) of $500 million. His second son also served 3 1/2 years in prison on charges of bribery.
  • Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008): He was subject to public humiliation as his immediate family and his closest aides were investigated for corruption and bribery.

Let’s put aside for a moment whether justice should be served at any cost. At the heart of the matter is the close link between business interest and political interest. This is what Korea is, right now. The two seems to have a hard time being separated. It’s also obvious media cannot be trusted given its overt political inclinations and biassed reporting. Anyone who goes after the establishment suffers either at the hands of the establishment itself or at the hand of their successors.

Given enough scrutiny and tenacious will to defame and reduce one’s political foe’s influence, there will always emerge something where you can hook the moral and political liability on. Nobody is perfect. Least of all Korean leaders.

Does Korean politics have a heart or the stomach for a forward-thinking visionary leader? No wonder some pine for president Park’s dictatorship years, which revisionist history claims was what laid the foundations for Korea’s incredible economic growth. Ask my father-in-law who worked for the Economic Planning Board, the highest government authority on economic matters, he will tell you it was some smart economic policy coupled with a lot of luck.

Funeral of President Roh Moo-hyun, May 29, 2009

Sign reads: “We are deeply sorry for not protecting you”. (Photo credit: ohmynews.com)

In her emotional speech at the funeral, Han Myung-suk, Roh’s Prime Minister apologized for not being able to protect the President from such an ending. This is a sentiment that was felt by the millions who came to pay their last respects across the nation at official and makeshift memorials. Those who were not supporters during his presidency, and those even despite being his supporters who were disappointed at Roh by this recent scandal turned out, tearful, resentful, and remorseful at the state of the nation and at not being able to have done more to protect the one they once believed in.

Maybe the self-proclaimed “Foolish President” Roh needed a “Chaney”. Someone who will ruthlessly defend and dog political foes so that the president can be protected, regardless of the fact that the administration’s policies may be misguided. In some way this is why Obama needs Biden. Someone who can navigate the rough and tumble waters of politics while he leads.

The question at the end of the day is can this unfortunate and deeply disturbing event be a catalyst for change? Can Korea’s politics be more focussed on being forward-looking than political in-fighting? Can it be more independent of business-interests? Can Korean politics have a strong social reform agenda equal to its economic growth agenda? Can Korea create socially-driven businesses as much as greed-driven businesses? Can Korea create vehicles for the civil sector to express and operate to initiate change? I truly hope so.

In his book “The Culture Code”, cultural anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille claims that a culture “grows up” only after killing its king. I’m not sure if I agree with this, but let’s hope that this week’s painful lessons and needless death shall help the Korean political system wake-up, and mature a bit more.