[Viewpoint] A tragic end to Roh’s story

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[Viewpoint] A tragic end to Roh’s story

At his last dawn, he came across a demon. He climbed up along the cliff known as Owl’s Rock on Mount Bonghwa, which held cherished memories of his childhood. He had eked out a meager livelihood in the nearby hills, where he dug up tubers of arrowroot, picked azaleas and climbed up the mountain frequently. He bathed and splashed in a river running through the valley.

Such memories might have flitted through his mind for a while.

Then, former President Roh Moo-hyun abruptly jumped off the rock.

His death was shocking and grievous news.

What made him reach such an extreme decision? Was it because he felt a sense of shame after prosecutors summoned him?

Was the morality - so important to Roh - of his administration bruised? Was it a manifestation of stubborn resistance? Or was it his great sense of responsibility?

We will never get the answer or learn more about his affliction.

Right after seeing the headlines on television, I called a priest, Song Gi-in.

“I am going to the hospital. I have nothing to tell you now,” he said in a mournful voice.

Father Song had encouraged Roh to enter politics during the general elections of April 1988. He has been a mentor to Roh for more than two decades .

Twenty days earlier, I visited Song’s house in Samnangjin, South Gyeongsang Province. He didn’t want to discuss the scandal that had enveloped Roh, other than to say that he found it “distressing” and that he was “in utter bewilderment.”

He then changed the subject.

“President Roh has visited my house after retiring from office,” Song said. “He liked country food with no artificial flavors.”

I again asked Song about his personal affinity and relationship with Roh. He was reluctant to say much. However, he did open up ever so slightly.

“I told Roh three lessons on his inauguration as president,” Song said.

“Be persistent in implementing revolutionary tasks to the end, keep away from money around the Blue House and keep control of your relatives.

“Long ago, we promised to both take a journey to Tibet. His run for the presidency frustrated our hope. I asked him about our promise to travel to Tibet. He said ‘Why don’t we go after retirement?’” His opportunity to travel is gone. Is there a more tragic ending for the former president?

Later, while watching news of Roh’s death, a portrait of Roh appeared on the television screen. It was hanging in a corridor in the main building of the Blue House, near the portraits of nine other former presidents. The portraits remind us of our modern history’s tragedies. Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, passed away in exile in Hawaii. President Park Chung Hee was assassinated.

In Roh’s portrait, the former president sports a red tie. He was the youngest of the five living former presidents. Lee Jong-gu, a painter of dignity, is the artist behind the work. Recently I talked to him about the portrait.

“Originally he wore a gray necktie but I changed it to red to symbolize a young president,” Lee said. “I tried to express his two images - his charismatic reform and softness, and his dignified appearance and coziness - in the painting at the same time. However, President Roh hoped to be described as one of the common folks who smokes and jokes with acquaintances in his countryside home.”

I recall a memory with Roh in early April 20 years ago. I met him at his house in Yeouido, Seoul. He was a star politician involved in a political hearing that had been in utter discord. Tensions escalated, and it got to the point where Roh - sticking to his personal philosophy instead of his political career - submitted a letter of resignation from his national assembly seat. I told him about the public’s opinion. “The prevailing view is that you have political freshness and courage. Withdraw your resignation,” I said.

Roh responded, “It is painful and shameful to change my mind.”

A few days later, I met him again and he promised to be “a politician who satisfies and eases people’s difficulties.” He then established it as his own political philosophy and brand.

At times, he showed his willingness to break rules. And he succeeded in charging to the top and opening up a new era in politics. It was short but intense. After it was all over, he returned to his hometown to retire.

Roh wrote that “life and death are the same.” However, did he have nothing to regret?

I pray for his repose.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Bo-gyoon
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