[VIEWPOINT]Going home is an elusive dreamFormer President Choi Kyu-ha passed away last week, so now we have four former presidents still alive. But in a year and four months, President Roh Moo-hyun will swell the ranks of Blue House retirees back to five.
A few days ago the Blue House revealed the construction site for the house President Roh intends to build in Bongha village, his hometown. President Roh will be the first president to retire to his hometown out of eight presidents in the history of the Republic of Korea. Bongha village in Gimhae is the place where Mr. Roh’s soul was nurtured. Barley pipes, the Jawang valley where he fed cattle, the hut where he studied, and the trails by the river he used to walk with his village girlfriend Yang-sook until late into the night. President Roh recently recalled the romantic atmosphere of the trails: “When I walked along the trails by the field, I could see that the moonlight reflected on the dew drops hanging on barley made the field look like a place filled with silver beads.”
Of course, not all of his recollections are like fairy tales. At times, poverty left scars on his childhood memories. While children living in town attended school without concerns about school fees, children from distant rural areas used to be punished for not being able to pay tuition fees on time. Naturally, there emerged a division between children from urban and rural areas, and Roh Moo-hyun of Bongha village used to lead the rural faction.
The foundation of President Roh’s life that began in Bongha village moved with him to Busan and then to Seoul and ultimately to the Blue House. The spirit of conflict and resistance he nurtured as a member of the rural faction from Bongha village was continued as a lawyer fighting for human rights and labor in Busan. After that he became a National Assemblyman with convictions, and ultimately became “the president who supported self-reliance.” And he is now looking forward to his homecoming at the age of 62.
No president in Korea’s modern history has ever been able to return to his hometown. The founding father, Dr. Syngman Rhee, was exiled to Hawaii, and died there. The leader of modernization, Park Chung Hee, also failed to find his way home. He is said to have planned to step down around 1983 and may have gone home if he wasn’t assassinated. Chun Doo Hwan had to go into exile. The Baekdam temple at Mount Seorak might be closer to his soul than the basin of River Hwang in Hapcheon. Former President Roh Tae-woo was trapped under a pile of dirty money before he could return to his hometown at the foot of Mount Palgong in North Gyeongsang province, and his health has now declined so much that he was unable to attend the funeral service of former President Choi.
Even former President Kim Young-sam, who claimed to be the first civilian president, could not enjoy his freedom for some time after his retirement because of the foreign exchange crisis that broke out toward the end of his presidency. Accusations were made that piles of money in the accounts of the national intelligence agency were the president’s slush fund, but he just stayed curled up in Sangdo-dong as if in a cocoon and kept his mouth shut. Former President Kim Dae-jung visited his hometown of Mokpo last weekend for the first time since his retirement in 2003, but there was a time when he could not visit his hometown freely because of the secret fund he gave to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. He claimed to have founded the nation for a second time, but where is that nation now?
Perhaps President Roh is a lucky man. There was no April 19 student’s uprising, or murder of a president at a safe house during his term of office. He did not seize power through a military coup, and there are no hidden slush funds, suspicious money in the national intelligence agency’s accounts or dubious money transferred to the regime in North Korea, at least so far.
However, will this guarantee the president a peaceful return to his hometown? One year and couple of months before his retirement, the country is divided, the alliance with the United States is shaky, the ruling party seems fatally wounded and the streets are filled with complaining people. And there is the North Korean nuclear problem on top of that. If the pressure from the international community continues, the North Korean regime might reach the limit of its survival within months.
If the North Korean nuclear issue goes in an undesirable direction, President Roh could also end up trapped. If the fate of the nation is in danger, how can he enjoy the leisure of being a retired president pursuing his pet issues like environmental protection? It is solely President Roh’s responsibility that his retirement is endangered. Whatever excuses he may offer, he is losing the contest with Kim Jong-il that the people of this country trusted him to win. When will the Korean people be able to look forward to a peaceful retirement of a president to his hometown?
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin