[Viewpoint] A president of intensity and agonyI ponder many things while praying for the repose of the soul of former President Roh Moo-hyun, who left us so suddenly.
He was the first president who was born after Korea’s liberation from the Japanese Empire. He was also a politician who led an exceptionally fierce life that was as full of ups and downs, and twists and turns as the 60-year history of the Republic of Korea. Thus he left a profound resonance that will stay with us all.
The experience of suffering as a human being and a citizen of the Republic of Korea is one we share together with only slight differences among our contemporaries on this peninsula.
However, his life and death was so especially intense and dramatic that there flows a heavy silence between him and those of us who are left behind.
The agony of his life on this planet could be attributed to his extraordinary passion and conviction not to accept discrepancies between reality and his ideals.
His enthusiasm for the realization of social justice, in particular overcoming the inequalities found everywhere in this society, bordered on the religious.
However, the realization of absolute justice and equality in a human society is impossible.
Inequality arises not just from evil forces but also from the basic limitations of human ability.
When a man is faced with that fact, the unfulfilled aspiration to achieve justice inevitably fills him with an unbearable humane agony.
It is a principle of politics that the realization of such norms as justice, freedom and equality should be relative, rather than absolute.
Thus, politics is an art of possibility through compromise rather than a simple and straightforward struggle.
And it takes unbearablly painstaking effort to digest that wise principle.
The late President Roh presumably was even more extremely disappointed, and found accepting reality even more difficult than ordinary people, as his convictions and pursuit of justice and equality were exceptional.
Despite his humane agonies, we understand from the words he left that President Roh had a poetic mind that understood the limitations of human ability in the context of nature and destiny.
Some of the lines in his speeches, like poems, won’t be forgotten easily. Those poetic lines are very rare coming from a politician, especially a president of a country.
“Do not be too sad. Isn’t life and death all part of nature? Blame nobody.”
It’s linked to an inescapable Korean mentality that has continued for thousands of years in this country.
As a politician and president Roh was entrusted with an extremely important mission that affected the fate of the country and its people. He was faced with myriad tasks and choices and must have often been bombarded with agony, seeking to find a way out.
Amid such responsibility, presidents have for generations had to bear the heavy burden of how to deal with their historic task: how to rise above our shared national misfortune, the tragic division of the Korean Peninsula, which has lasted nearly 60 years.
It’s likely former President Roh was even more obsessed with this mission than any other leader.
Amid the confrontations of the inter-Korean relationship and the swirling mass of global politics, Korea’s president cannot help but face up to his historic task alone.
How can we surmount difficulties, drawing on proper policies and strategies, based on our relationship with our closest ally, the United States?
I can tell how much and how seriously Roh worried about controlling his feelings and anxiety, and about entrusting the fate of his nation to the stream of world history.
Even he must have experienced difficulties in this bizarre international relationship, even though he was an enthusiastic politician.
I do not know how he really felt toward the United States.
However, it is my belief that he had an appropriate understanding of the position of the United States in global politics and the importance of the relationship between Korea and the United States, which greatly contributed to turning Korea’s yesterday into its today.
I met with Roh as president-elect prior to his inauguration, and he asked me many questions, which underlined the importance of the Korea-U.S. relationship above all.
The scene is still vivid in my mind.
The selection of Korea’s diplomatic team for the United States, sending Korean troops to Iraq, and the conclusion of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement may be prime examples of the choices that he agonized over.
In addition, I do not know how much he worried about North Korea.
Since he had stood at the forefront of the anti-dictatorship and democratization movement, it must have been impossible for him to take a positive view of social institutions or leaders in North Korea.
As a human rights lawyer, he must have been unable to close his eyes to the North Korea situation.
Yet, as the president, he must have been racked by agony, arising from the strong sense of responsibility that he should devote himself to realizing our long-cherished dream of a unified national community.
The late President Roh will long be remembered by us all as a political leader who resisted the temptation to gloss over the difficulties or avoid covering the tangled choices of state affairs and continued to be in agony as he made tough decisions as the leader of the nation.
*The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo