Let Roh Moo-hyun go freeEach May, a number of local politicians try to take advantage of the enduring legacy of former President Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide three years ago amid piercing allegations of corruption. With the third anniversary of his mysterious death coming up on Wednesday, the atmosphere in political circles has gotten a little stranger. The deceptions and double standards of those who attempt to sell out Roh for their ill-conceived goals have betrayed his illuminating legacy.
On the contrary, Bongha Village in South Gyeongsang, from where Roh hailed, is colored in brilliant yellow every May. The whole town presents the public — and politicians for that matter — with a role model of a president. A signboard erected at the end of the road to the president’s former residence is full of his photos and selected quotes. “When politicians lie, we should feel upset, and when they betray a principle, we must get angry,” read one of the quotes, said by Roh in November 2007 during his last year in office.
Lee Jung-hee, former co-chair of the embattled Unified Progressive Party, should take notice. She, in particular, has attempted to exploit Roh’s legacy. “What would Roh have felt three years ago? He was battered by the public uproar, but I never believed any of suspicions until the facts were confirmed,” Lee said. Her remarks were then fiercely criticized by the public. Lee and the UPP’s hardliners still flatly deny that the party’s primary for proportional representatives of the 19th National Assembly was rigged. But Roh already gave a clear-cut answer to such a situation: “We should feel upset and angry when politicians make mistakes.”
The UPP’s hardline faction has resorted to simply repeating its unreasonable arguments and fancy rhetoric. “Don’t begin a witch hunt,” one of its members said. “There was no vote rigging in the primary,” another argued. It is as if they are expecting their lies to become true by simply repeating them over and over. They want to wear out and confuse the public with repeated lies. But the people won’t be fooled.
Roh once talked about how to deal with such a situation. “The ideal society that I think of . . . is a world in which we don’t have to see dirty, disgusting situations and every day is fun and enjoyable,” he said. But the hardline faction of the UPP is actually the source of these terrible situations the president advised avoiding. Han Myeong-sook, former interim leader of the main opposition Democratic United Party, and Lee Jung-hee should see the trouble they are causing in the alliance they formed. They claimed their coalition would stop the regression of democracy, but the reality is quite ironic: One axis of the alliance is actually destroying the fundamentals of our democracy.
In the past, crises of democracy were led by the right-wing dictatorships in Korea. But today, the extreme leftists are the source of the problem. The hardcore faction of the UPP is now characterized by exclusiveness and self-righteousness. The authoritarianism of the faction’s leadership is more severe than that of our past dictators.
The goal of the opposition groups’ alliance in the so-called “2013 regime” was to uphold their leftist ideology. Paik Nak-chung, an honorary professor at Seoul National University, is the architect. His alliance consists of three kinds of politicians: law-abiding liberals, pro-North Korea leftists and opportunistic left-wingers. But this disparate composition was lost on voters and other politicians, who now only see the troublemakers.
Roh’s liberalism took a different form. “It was Roh’s idea of democracy that liberal ideas will be achieved only when democracy is firmly established,” his memorial reads. Roh was very vigilant about liberals’ hypocrisy, and worked in the interest of average Koreans, rather than the party elite and their special interests. Perhaps the most obvious example of this pragmatism is Roh’s willingness to negotiate the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. “Those opposing the FTA claimed that the Korean government was dropping to its knees and making grave concessions which will hurt our national interest. [But] the Republic of Korea of which I was president was not a country that employed a submissive diplomacy,” Roh is quoted as saying, at his memorial site.
Roh’s geopolitical awareness is also featured there. “The source of confrontation on the Korean Peninsula extends beyond the peninsula itself,” the president once said. “It is part of the long history of competition that has existed in Northeast Asia. . . . That’s why I pushed self-defense — to balance out diplomatic conflicts in the region.” His focus on self-defense was received with conflicting opinions among the public and among Korea’s allies. He was so obsessed with regaining wartime operational control of Korean troops that self-defense was often seen a tense point in the Korea-U.S. alliance.
And his determination was also reflected in his grand plan to build a naval base on Jeju Island. In the waters off the island, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia openly flaunt their naval power. Peace can only be protected with the military might, and the naval base fit into Roh’s intepretation of our history, which goes far beyond the debate over Gurumbi rock on the island.
A memorial event on Wednesday will draw many Roh loyalists, members of the liberal alliance and officials of left-wing civic groups. All of them have promised to uphold Roh’s legacy, but most kept distance from his vision during the April 11 legislative elections. They ignored his ambitions and historical insight, only to exploit the president for political benefit.
It is time we respect Roh and free him from everyday, mundane politics. Fellow liberals must let his legacy stand on its own, and only then it will regain the power it once held.