[Viewpoint]Roh’s debt to the press room

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[Viewpoint]Roh’s debt to the press room

It is June again. The asphalt is as hot as it was in June 20 years ago. Teargas shell casings and broken cobblestones littering the streets, the shouting of protesters and the blood of Lee Han-yeol: These were the sights and sounds of that summer etched in memory. One might say that June that year actually started in January 1987 with the death of Park Jong-chul, a student activist, from torture. As fate would have it, Roh Moo-hyun’s actions that summer entwined him with the martyred Park Jong-chul. A lawyer at the time, Roh protested, became famous and eventually won a seat in the National Assembly. He is now president. What an irony it is that the pressroom he so hates is just as intimately linked to his fate.
On January 15, 1987 Shin Sung-ho, a reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo, had been killing time at the pressroom of the Justice Ministry ― he “had kept to the pressroom the whole day,” if we may borrow an expression from President Roh. Shin set out for his morning tour of the ministry at around 9:40 a.m. as usual. As a courtesy he used to drop by the offices of high-ranking officials of the ministry, such as senior prosecutors, to say hello. One of these said to him, “The police are in trouble.” Shin had no idea what he was talking about, but pretended as if he knew about the case and replied, “Indeed, it is a big problem.” Then the senior prosecutor started to spill out: “university student ... death ...” Shin quietly slipped out of the room and filed his first report to the newspaper. “A university student under investigation by the police is dead.”
Shin went on to visit the offices of other high-ranking officials of the prosecution. He gathered more telling details in snatches: “Namyoung-dong, interrogation room, Seoul National University, linguistics major, and Park Jong -something ...” At around 11:30 a.m., Kim Du-woo, a reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo who covered Seoul National University ― “keeping himself to the press room the whole day” ― received a call on his pager. It was his city editor. He said, “A student seems to have died while under torture. His name is Park Jong -something, a student majoring in linguistics at Seoul National University. Find out who he is, quickly.” Kim called the department of linguistics pretending he was from the student affairs department of the university. He finally found out the name: Park Jong-chul. Hur Sang-chun, a JoongAng Ilbo reporter stationed in Busan, also received an urgent call and was asked to go to Park’s house in Busan to confirm the news. The newspaper stopped the press, and urgently updated the news with the latest information. This is how the news of the death of Park Jong-chul was brought to light.
People’s rage against the military-backed government of former President Chun Doo Hwan spread throughout the entire country. Civic organizations held a memorial ceremony for Park Jong-chul in front of the Busan Theater on Feb. 7. Participants turned it into an anti-government rally, including Kim Kwang-il, a lawyer who led the democratization movement in Busan and who later worked as chief of staff to former President Kim Young-sam; human rights lawyer Roh Moo-hyun and Moo Jae-in, the incumbent Blue House chief of staff. The demonstrators collided fiercely with the police. The prosecutors tried hard to arrest Roh and to prosecute him as a warning to others. He was a blight to the prosecution. Roh threw himself on the pavement together with demonstrators and stood up against the court and the prosecution.
Kim Kwang-il requested help from the human rights committee of the Korean Bar Association. Two lawyers from the committee went down to Busan and visited the court. They protested to the judiciary saying, “How can the court issue a warrant for the arrest of a lawyer for such a trivial matter?” The court dismissed the warrant. The name Roh Moo-hyun first became known to the public through this incident. In May that year, Roh became the head of a standing committee of the Busan branch of the National Movement to Restore the Democratic Constitution. In April 1988, Kim Young-sam asked Kim Kwang-il to recommend a person in the opposition in Busan as a candidate for the general elections. Kim recommended Roh as a candidate.
Kim recalls, “Since Roh became known to the people through the incident of his arrest by the prosecution and subsequent dismissal of the arrest warrant by the court, and had the experience of playing a leadership role in Busan, it was easy for me to recommend him.”
If it were not for the death of Park Jong-chul under torture, Roh would not have had the chance to emerge as a leading democracy fighter, making his name known to the people.
He would not have had the luck of being nominated as the opposition party’s candidate for election to the 13th National Assembly, and there would have been no President Roh Moo-hyun today.
If there had not been a pressroom at the Justice Ministry, would reporter Shin Sung-ho have been able to freely make the rounds of senior prosecutors of the authoritarian government under former President Chun Doo Hwan?
Would the senior prosecutor have leaked the information of Park’s death, if Shin had to fill out “an application to contact government officials” in advance?
How could a reporter who has to count every minute and second of his time fill up such applications? Would reporter Kim Du-woo have been able to confirm Park Jong-chul’s name so quickly, if there had been no pressroom?
If time had passed without the press knowing about Park’s death, how would the government have concealed the truth about his death? I wish President Roh would ask Park Jong-chul in heaven what the martyred student thought of the pressroom.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin

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