[Viewpoint] Roh’s death signals need for reform

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[Viewpoint] Roh’s death signals need for reform

News of former President Roh Moo-hyun’s passing shocked Koreans last weekend and much of the country is now grieving the unexpected loss.

Roh and his family and friends were the subject of an intense investigation by prosecutors, and the former president wrote in a suicide note found on his computer that he cannot fathom the pain still to come to him and to those around him.

There are some who claim that his death was a political murder, and I think that assertion is not completely groundless.

The legal battle between prosecutors and Roh in the last several months is now meaningless. The prosecutors no longer have jurisdiction over the case.

However, the tangible and intangible aftershocks from the death will be tremendous.

Roh’s death is too shocking and politically significant to be considered simply the tragic fate for a former president.

Korean society has lost a valuable political figure. The blood, sweat and tears Roh put into campaigning and running for president in addition to his accomplishments in office instill a sense of admiration in the younger generation. His time as president also is part of the fabric of Korea’s history.

In addition, Roh’s footsteps after retirement are an extension of his legacy. They, too, are part of the country’s history. Sure, the legacy of a president is important in any nation. But it’s arguably an even bigger deal here than in many other nations. Korea, after all, has a short history with democracy, and each president’s legacy is even more meaningful partly because there have been so few of them.

While people might have different views of President Roh’s administration, we can certainly learn a great deal from him.

If his administration is “lost history,” as some critics are saying, we can learn from his failures.

In contrast, if his term in office is regarded as “a history of hope,” we should follow his example.

A former president is a significant political asset for a country, and Korean society has suffered a national loss with his death.

The tragic event should serve to start a serious discussion on constitutional revision. Aside from Roh, several other former presidents became embroiled in scandal and tragedy, and stepped down to lead desolate lives. Our constitutional structure feeds into that.

Originally, the presidential system’s basic principle is the division of power through checks and balances. But Korea has adopted a modified form of a president-centered system and concentrates all the authority on the president.

The power concentrated on the president inevitably results in corruption and abuse of power by those close to the president, and the succeeding administration will use the corruption of the predecessor to justify the power shift.

This abnormal constitutional structure ignores the key principle of the presidency, and the vicious cycle brings a tragic ending for presidents.

We need to reconsider the system itself from a more fundamental level.

We are all mourning the loss of Roh, but what we really need now is to divert the grief into mature civil discussion and political awareness.

We all now must look inward with a spirit of caring and tolerance.

If we start pointing fingers at one another, it will damage the meaning of Roh’s death. It will erase what we can take from his death. In order to learn something from this tragedy, we should actively pursue constitutional revision and political reform to prevent further corruption and to solidify the system of democracy. I am confident that our political asset in the late President Roh Moo-hyun will become even more precious when we put our forces together to improve the system.


*The writer is a professor of political science at Kyungnam University. Translation by the JoongAng Ilbo staff.


by Shim Ji-yeon

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