[Viewpoint]The message in mourningPresident Lee Myung-bak is looking forward to Liberation Day on Aug. 15. Celebrating the 60th anniversary of Korea’s foundation, he very likely wants to completely renew the atmosphere in the country. It has been a very difficult six months of ordeals no Korean president has ever gone through. If the Constitution had defined this period as a presidential internship, he may have felt more comfortable.
The president has so far been studying how to be a president. He has taken classes on forming a cabinet, appointing officials, making foreign policy and communicating with the citizens. He also learned how to apologize for mistakes and give up a policy, namely, the grand canal project.
One of the many subjects he has studied is how to make a condolence call. To a president, making such calls is an act of governing. Citizens get different ideas about the president depending on whose death he mourns.
President Lee visited Seoul Asan Hospital at around 6:40 p.m. on July 31 to express his condolences to actor Lee Sun-jae for the loss of his mother. In late June, the president also made a condolence call when the mother of Minister of Strategy and Finance Kang Man-soo passed away.
The president is the chief of state. The people who died were not even his friends. Is it appropriate for the chief of the state to spare time to make such calls personally? Of course, the president must be especially close to Mr. Lee and Mr. Kang. Lee Sun-jae had been a member of Hanbaekhoi, a lawmakers’ fraternal and study group, together with President Lee when they were both representatives in the 14th National Assembly. After Lee Sun-jae returned to his acting career, he maintained a very close relationship with President Lee.
Minister Kang Man-soo had worked as the director of the city policy development institute when Lee Myung-bak was the mayor of Seoul. He is also a member of the president’s church, Somang. However, there must be several dozens of friends the president is as close to as Lee Sun-jae or Kang Man-soo. Does the president intend to go to every funeral of every family member of all his friends? Can he really spare that time as a president?
A president is only human; he also has to express personal feelings. His predecessors would have their secretaries attend the funerals of their friends’ families or send flowers. If they wished to personally express their condolences, they would invite the friend to the Blue House for dinner. A personal visit would be made only when their close relatives, family members or friends passed away. President Roh Tae-woo traveled to Daegu at night when his uncle passed away. He also made a condolence call when an assemblyman died of cancer. No president in history has visited a funeral for a friend’s family member.
A presidential condolence call has to have a message. In early June 1997, several police officers were killed or injured in the course of suppressing violent demonstrations by the Korean Federation of University Student Councils. Officer Yu Ji-wung was crushed by a police vehicle during a rally. President Kim Young-sam visited the Police Hospital and consoled Yu’s family. He made a round of the wards to speak with injured police officers. In late August, 1996, Kim visited the funeral of officer Kim Jong-hui, who was killed during a violent demonstration, and visited injured officers. When President Lee Myung-bak came to the funeral of the minister’s mother, young police officers were in beds at the Police Hospital, having been beaten by violent protesters.
When the president turns away from deaths the nation is supposed to mark, the country’s spirit is shaken. In July 2002, Korean soldiers were killed and injured as they clashed in the West Sea with North Koreans. President Kim Dae-jung did not come to their funerals or hospital beds. Instead, he went to Tokyo to attend the closing ceremony of the Korea-Japan World Cup. Neither the prime minister, nor the minister of defense, nor the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff attended the funeral. This absence at the funeral of young soldiers who died fighting for the country is the most notable case of weak national spirit. When Chief Warrant Officer Stanley Harriman of the U.S. Army was killed in the war in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush visited his hometown to console his parents.
On Oct. 26, 1979, President Park Chung Hee left an envelope on his desk as he left for his house in Gungjeongdong, where he would be killed. The envelope was addressed to the widow of Government Administration Minister Shim Eui-hwan. Shim had passed away from liver cancer four days earlier, and the letter was to console his widow.
President Lee Myung-bak could have found a better way to convey his feelings to Minister Kang or Mr. Lee. If the president had attended the funeral of writer Park Gyeong-ri or Lee Cheong-jun instead of the funeral of the 93-year-old mother of an actor, he could have conveyed a different message.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin