[Letters] Roh Moo-hyun: a tribute

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[Letters] Roh Moo-hyun: a tribute

The 16th president of South Korea ended his own life Saturday at the peaceful mountainside near his retirement home. He took with him the burden of a humiliating prosecution that stamped a man who fought his whole life for democracy and justice with a $6 million corruption scandal. “You should now discard me,” he wrote in a 14-line note, his last remaining message to the world. “I no longer stand for the values you pursue.”

Former President Roh Moo-hyun, a human rights lawyer who was swept into office in 2002 on a wave of change and hope, was far from a conniving politician. He had a mind of his own, and frequently turned the floors upside down by challenging the traditional hierarchy of Korean politics. His opponents called him ignorant and reckless. His supporters, whose numbers continued to dwindle in size after fits of labor unrest, an economic downturn and diplomatic friction, called him brave and revolutionary. Ultimately, he was a man with bigger dreams than his politics could handle.

Roh was born in the rural outskirts of Gimhae near Busan, Korea’s second-largest city, a year after Korea was liberated from Japanese colonization. Even before becoming a politician, Roh knew the ins and outs of protesting against authority. In 1960, he led a student protest refusing to write a mandatory essay praising then-president Syngman Rhee.

A self-made man who never attended university, Roh passed the bar in 1975 and practiced tax law until he saw the bruised and bloody bodies of tortured students. In a move that changed his life, he went from prosecuting tax offenders to defending students and labor activists from torture. In 1987, he participated actively in the pro-democracy movement that transformed Korean politics. His fight against corruption, autocracy, and power exemplified the courage people wanted to see.

After being elected to a few insignificant regional political positions starting in 1988, Roh emerged from obscurity and won the December 2002 presidential election by a narrow margin of 2 percent. His support base was a group of Internet-savvy young people who called themselves Nosamo, or “people who love Roh,” and were hungry for political change.

As the underdog who seemed to know little about the complicated etiquette of politics, Roh came into office with ambitious plans to reform everything, from the tax system to the educational system to the location of the country’s capital. As expected, he pushed the wrong buttons of too many important people.

When change did not come as quickly as hoped and the economy slumped from falling investment, Roh’s popularity also took a downward turn. His friendly policies toward North Korea were criticized as submissive appeasement and his decision to send troops to Iraq in contradiction to his distant attitude toward Washington gave rise to public controversy.

Then in March 2004, opposition lawmakers impeached Roh on charges of unconstitutional electioneering and governing incompetently. Though the constitutional court overturned the impeachment, Roh could not satisfy either his supporters or his critics with any of his subsequent policies. He ended his administration with several unfinished tasks, including a Korea-U.S. FTA and an unsuccessful real estate reform plan.

But unlike other former presidents, Roh stayed in the public eye even after leaving office. He maintained a Web site and his quiet home in Bonghwa Village became a tourist attraction visited by hundreds of curious passers-by each day. Despite the criticism regarding his policies, there were still many who revered the former president for upholding his values of progressivism, freedom of civil society and welfare for the poor.

Then, in the midst of his transition to a semi-normal life, Roh and his family members were accused of bribery involving $6 million received from a businessman. After months of intense interrogation and public disenchantment, the twinkle in the former president’s eyes turned into bloodshot fatigue.

“I apologize for disappointing the people,” he wrote before taking his own life.

In a society where a politician is expected to take moral responsibility for scandals involving family members, Roh could not escape the guilt of tarnishing the sacred values he stood for. It did not matter that other former presidents had also been involved in bribery scandals. He felt, with utmost respect for Korean society, that he had not done his job as a civil servant. His death leaves many with a disheartening question: If not him, who spoke out against corruption and power all his life, then who has [not taken bribes]?

Roh Moo-hyun is survived by his wife, Kwon Yang-sook, their son Roh Geon-ho and daughter Roh Jeong-yon. May he rest in peace and the values he fought for be taken on by those left behind. Priscilla Baek, Korean Flagship Fellow ‘09,

University of Hawaii-Korea University

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