Annual memorial to Roh receives record 50,000 pilgrims

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Annual memorial to Roh receives record 50,000 pilgrims

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President Moon Jae-in, center, and dignitaries pay their respects at the grave of the late president Roh Moo-hyun in Bongha Village in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang, on Tuesday after holding a memorial service to mark the eighth anniversary of Roh’s death. [YONHAP]

GIMHAE, SOUTH GYEONGSANG - A record number of 50,000 people came to Bongha Village in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang, to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the death of former President Roh Moo-hyun on Tuesday.

The most prominent pilgrim was President Moon Jae-in, who visited Roh’s hometown some 350 kilometers (210 miles) south of Seoul with first lady Kim Jung-sook, making good on a campaign promise to honor the former president by attending the May 23 ceremony as commander in chief.

Moon was Roh’s most trusted aide in the Blue House and a partner through their early careers as human rights lawyers.

As Moon and thousands of other liberals honored Roh’s legacy, conservatives saw their once beloved leader Park Geun-hye in court for the first hearing in a trial on 13 counts of bribery and abuse of power.

Park has been jailed awaiting trial for 53 days since her removal from office after being impeached by the National Assembly.

To many supporters of the liberal icon Roh, Tuesday’s ceremony was a long overdue validation of the former president’s legacy. It was the first time a sitting president attended the yearly memorial since Roh’s suicide in 2009.

“Though enough years have passed that the sense of agony over losing him might have faded,” Moon said in a speech, “more people are calling out for Roh now. The name Roh Moo-hyun has now become a symbol of a country in which no foul play and corrupted interests are allowed and, instead, common sense and principles are universally applied.”

Listening in the crowd were Roh’s widow, former first lady Kwon Yang-sook, and his eldest son Roh Kun-ho.

In his speech, Moon acknowledged shortcomings of the Roh government, for which he was presidential chief of staff.

“While our ideals were high, our strength fell short. We failed to climb over the wall of reality. After Roh’s failure, our society, especially our politics, got on the path toward abnormality, drifting further away from the people’s hopes.”

Moon made it clear that his administration intends to complete the unfinished work of his former mentor. “The dream of Roh was to revive the power of the people,” said Moon referring to candlelight vigils held throughout 2016 demanding an end to the presidency of Park. “We will not fail again. By examining past governments, not only of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye but also of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun over the past 20 years, we will journey down the path of success.”

Moon noted that he was receiving overwhelming support from the public for his actions as president over the past two weeks.

“The fact that righting a wrong is now considered something very special tells us that our society has been deeply mired in abnormality for a long time,” said Moon, a direct jab at the governments of Lee and Park.

Moon, once nicknamed “Roh’s Last Standing Chief of Staff” and former chairman of the Roh Moo-hyun Foundation, which organized the event, said his attendance at this year’s ceremony would be his last as president.

“I will come back to see you after I have successfully done my job as president,” said the president to his former boss.

Politicians across the ideological spectrum joined the event, including ruling Democratic Party leader Choo Mi-ae, People’s Party floor leader Kim Dong-cheul, progressive Justice Party’s former presidential candidate Sim Sang-jeung and Bareun Party floor leader Joo Ho-young. The main conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party sent Baek Maeng-woo, a secretary general.

South Chungcheong Governor An Hee-jung, a Roh aide who waged a hard-fought primary race with Moon, was in the crowd.

“To anyone who either supported or opposed my father, this year’s commemoration must feel different [from past years],” said Roh Kun-ho in an address that followed Moon’s. “I am not quite sure how I can describe the depth of gratitude and mixed feelings I have now. I am just humbled before history and the judgement of the people. I express my deepest gratitude to longtime supporters.”

Bongha Village is where Roh spent his youth and where he retired after serving his five-year term as president. Roh’s retirement wasn’t peaceful. He was embroiled in a bribery scandal implicating his family members that led to his suicide on May 23, 2009, 24 days after being questioned by prosecutors and 15 months after leaving the Blue House.

Many liberals believe the 2009 investigation into Roh was politically motivated by the Lee government.

Every year on May 23, the Roh Moo-hyun Foundation hosts a memorial to the liberal president, known for his people-friendly, straightforward and sometimes maverick manner, which earned him both adoration and scorn.

Myun Seong-gwan, a longtime supporter who attended the ceremony told the Korea JoongAng Daily that he felt like he had done his “homework” by electing Moon president.

“I have been to every one of the ceremonies marking Roh’s passing since 2009,” said Myun, a 42-year-old worker from Busan.

“And this year I felt like I have done my homework for Roh by sending Moon back to the Blue House.”

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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