Moon ― and Roh’s legacyPresident Moon Jae-in has been in office for two weeks, but it feels like we’ve had him for months. It is hard to keep up with his extraordinary and radical speed or the scope of his work. Personally, I was most impressed by his presence at the state-administered 37th memorial ceremony for the Gwangju Democratization Movement.
I came to think of the role of the state and its leader while watching the ceremony at the May 18 National Cemetery in Gwangju, Souh Jeolla. Moon’s speech was unlike the usual perfunctory address delivered out of formality by a state leader — only the prime minister showed up on behalf of former President Park Geun-hye.
Moon’s speech had an emphatic and comforting tone as well as a message for forward-looking harmony and unity. It had the dignity and resonance of a true national leader. So this is what a state should be, I exclaimed to myself.
My eyes watered up as I watched the national leader walk up to hug a member of a victim’s family. I could not hold back the tears upon hearing the loud chorus of the movement’s symbolic song, “March for the Beloved,” that was banned under previous governments.
A nation has a duty to comfort the spirits of the dead, victimized by the state power, and to sympathize with the pain of the surviving family members. Its leader should weep with the woeful people and try to soften their hardened hearts with his or her genuine tears. “Uncovering the truth is not an issue of wrangling between liberals and conservatives, but an issue of common sense and justice,” he said, pledging to dig into the last details of the massacre and leave no questions behind.
There is no statute of limitations on relieving resentment and grief. Complaining of endless revisits to the past is cold-hearted. No matter how long or how much money it takes, the sinking of the Sewol ferry, which killed hundreds of young people, also must be investigated until every last detail has been uncovered.
A nation can sustain its identity and unity when its leader plays the role of a priest performing rituals for comforting the spirits of the people whose lives were brutally and unjustly cut short, and a judge ruling to bring justice and compensation for the victims’ families. Such a nation could draw willful patriotism from the people when it is up against challenges and threats from outside. Devotion to the nation is not bred through feeding young minds with state-published history textbooks. The latest May 18 movement memorial service did more to unite the people than what hundreds and thousands of state-administered textbooks could have done.
Moon also went to mourn another lost soul. He visited Bongha village, where former president Roh Moo-hyun is laid to rest, for the eighth anniversary of his passing. To Moon, his longtime friend and former boss is also a victim of brutal state power. The two cannot be separated, even though one is no longer with us.
Moon is where Roh had been today because of the life and death of Roh. It is hard to imagine what went through Moon’s mind when he stood before the grave of his old friend.
Moon pledged during his campaign that he would visit his friend’s grave as the 19th president. He was keeping his promise, but he could have had second thoughts because he no longer an ordinary person but a president of the entire population. There are people who miss the homely president as well as those who still bear distrust for the liberal president. He will have to decide whether to go every year during his five-year term or just this once. Some could question his partiality if he does not attend the memorial service for other presidents. This is why he chose to use one of his vacation days to visit his hometown in Yangsan and stop by Bongha Village on his way back.
His remarks at the memorial service were be closely watched. It would be best to keep comments simple, as memorial services for Roh and the Gwangju movement victims are different. Paying respect at the grave and sharing comforting words with the family members would be enough. The dead, families and supporters would have already been rewarded by the presence of Moon as president. Words would be redundant. Moon, in his memoir, said Roh Moo-hyun and his administration have become a part of history, and that lessons could be learned from both his achievements and failures. “We must move beyond the Roh Moo-hyun era,” he said. Time has come to let go of Roh. Moon is not an extension of his administration. He is not Roh’s substitute. If he were, how could Roh ever rest peacefully?
JoongAng Ilbo, May 23, Page 35
*The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.