[Viewpoint] New Year’s reflections from Owl Rock

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[Viewpoint] New Year’s reflections from Owl Rock

What shocked me most this year was President Roh Moo-hyun’s suicide. He spearheaded one of the world’s 15 largest economies for five years and tasted the apex of his life’s rags-to-fame achievement. Yet one early morning not long after his highly publicized retirement to his countryside hometown, he strolled up the mountain behind his home and jumped off the cliff. He reportedly rested awhile on a rock in his last minutes in this world.

I have often wondered what he thought and saw at that moment. I thought of going to the rock after he died on May 23. I went up the mountain four days after his death, but couldn’t make it near the cliff because of the police barricade. As the year neared its close, I made another trip and finally sat myself on the ill-fated Owl Rock.

A hollow wintery field spread under my feet, a checkerboard of rice paddies. A younger Roh Moo-hyun had walked along the ridges hand in hand with his village sweetheart. He later reminisced “the dew on the ears of rice plants glistened under the moonlight as if silver beads were peppered across the field.”

The field reaches the foot of Snake Mountain where a poor young man with big dreams studied by himself for the bar exam in a little hut. On the inner field, next to the humble cottage where he was born, sits the residence he retired to and lived in until his death.

He lies now some 200 meters from his birthplace. The sweetheart from his youth lives alone in the residence, and the brother who shared the hut on the mountain sits in a prison cell. No map of a presidential family could be more tragic and woeful.

Someone wise once said a leader should have a warm heart and a cool head. A leader’s head and heart touch the lives of so many, particularly if he or she is in charge of a state. Whether leaders had a warm heart or not is reflected in the way their followers act after their deaths.

A man rarely opens up to his seniors or colleagues in the workplace. He more easily shows his true colors to subordinates. Roh’s staff and followers knew their leader well. His die-hard network of supporters moved swiftly and in an orderly fashion after their president’s demise. Some published postmortem books and set up a foundation, while others took care of the widow and the president’s small hometown in the southeastern part of the country.

Some created a political party to carry on his legacy. Regardless of the noise, all their buzzing and humming struck me as novel.

His heart was warm enough to move his followers as eagerly as if he was alive. Tourists making the pilgrimage to Bongha Village murmur that he was an unusually common man for a president.

But an ordinary president and a president for the ordinary is not the same. A warm, compassionate heart can be enough for the ordinary. But a president for the ordinary requires a cool head. The late president’s tragedy was called down not by his heart, but his head.

I don’t believe Roh made the campaign pledge to move the capital to Chungcheong to seek votes in the region. After his defeat in parliamentary elections in 1992, he set up a research center and mainly studied decentralization. He believed the creation of a new administrative city was the answer.

The issue of decentralization and regionally balanced prosperity is a state affair. How to take up such a staggering task requires scrutiny. If he was more level-headed, Roh wouldn’t have thought of moving the capital or creating a new administrative city to save the country from its current problems. He served in the legislature and cabinet, lastly as the top executive.

Yet he was oblivious to the fallout of breaking apart an administration. He lacked calmness in his head, but got worked up by the passion in his heart. Sejong City was just the start of a roller-coaster ride of political gambles and gaffes.

The unrealistic reform drive on prosecutors, referendum to test the public trust, proposing a grand coalition with the opposition party, contempt for the Constitution, anti-American sentiment and degradation of the president’s authority are all byproducts of an overheated brain.

I stopped by the gift shop before leaving Bongha Village. A picture of Roh beaming, his arm linked with a soldier from the XCCC Division in Iraq, caught my eye. It is one of my favorite pictures of the former president. His decision to send troops to Iraq was one of his rare successful policies converging heart and head. I threw one more glance toward Owl Rock, which overlapped with the sad face of the ex-president in my mind.


*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jin

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