[Viewpoint]The best way to leaveI visited Dasan Chodang in Gangjin, South Jeolla last weekend. At first, I set off without a plan just hoping to get some fresh air, but my weekend trip turned out to be a short tour of the southern region.
Dasan Chodang is the site of Joseon-period philosopher Jeong Yak-yong’s house of exile for 18 years, where he buried himself in studies and taught junior scholars.
Jeong produced countless writings there. Still, he did not forget to write letters to his beloved children. The letters are filled with his affectionate intentions to teach his children the wisdom to live life the right way. In 1810, when Jeong was 49, he wrote the following letter to his eldest son:
“When you are dismissed from a public position, you should return to your hometown immediately. No matter how dearly your friends and colleagues ask you to stay, you must never linger. You should enjoy a life as a scholar by reading, learning decorum, planting flowers, growing vegetables and making a pond by drawing water from the stream.”
As if to carry out Jeong’s teachings, President Roh Moo-hyun, who will be succeeded by Lee Myung-bak on Monday, plans to return to his hometown the day he leaves the Blue House.
In the morning, he will attend the inauguration ceremony for his successor, then take the afternoon KTX train to Bongha Village in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang.
Roh will be the first former president to head directly to his hometown after leaving office.
The development of Bongha Village is a controversial issue. Some criticize the spending of taxpayers’ money for a former president’s comfortable life in the countryside. Others insist the development is unrelated to the former president.
Time will tell if the president does indeed wish to enjoy a quiet and scholarly life, as Jeong advised. However, I want to be a little more generous to a president who is setting a new tradition by returning home immediately after retiring.
Former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez once said, “A former head of state is like an inherited, huge piece of Chinese pottery.”
That is such an appropriate comparison. In an interview with the American media before leaving office in March 2006, Ricardo Lagos, then the president of Chile, quoted Gonzalez and added, “Let’s say you received a huge piece of china one day. You would be troubled to find a place to put it. It is precious yet annoying, and that’s what a former president is. Therefore, it is best to keep oneself out of the public eye.”
Lagos was a successful president, with an approval rating above 70 percent when he left office.
He was a leftist with a belief in social democracy, but he made contributions toward lowering the unemployment rate and improving poverty with open and pragmatic policies. Today, he is the president of the Club of Madrid, an organization of former heads of state, and is a special envoy on climate change for the United Nations. He keeps a low-profile domestically, but is actively working internationally.
President Roh is getting mixed reviews. His proponents appreciate that he has broken down the authoritarian culture, prepared the basis for a Westernized welfare state, corrected modern history, pursued a transparent society without corruption and established a peaceful system on the Korean Peninsula.
At the same time, he has caused unnecessary social discord, aggravated polarization and contributed to the hike in real estate prices and private educational costs.
Yu Woo-ik, the designated chief of staff for President-elect Lee Myung-bak, said, “I do not think the past administrations were ‘a lost decade’ but were a period of rectifying and digesting what we lacked, missed or distorted in the course of industrialization and democratization.” He pointed out the positive aspects.
As pragmatism originates from looking at things and phenomena without bias, Koreans can place hopes on the next administration.
In his last cabinet meeting, President Roh did not make any special remarks. After all, the best way to exit is to leave quietly with grace. Let the next generation do the evaluation.
A former president is in an awkward position and it is not easy to act wisely. He might become more celebrated after retirement, but that would taint his achievements during his term.
How President Roh is remembered in the future depends on how he acquits himself.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok