Roh’s final confession
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
At a dinner in Washington on July 19, I sat across from Rep. Roh Hoe-chan. It was three days before his death, and it was the last time he met with the press. He seemed free and easygoing. We had a few drinks together.
You can never see into other people’s minds, but at least on the surface, he didn’t look like someone who was considering suicide. He was freely sharing his views with others.
“It appears President Moon Jae-in sees a declaration to end the Korean War as an ‘entryway’ to good will,” he said, “but the United States sees at it as a card that cannot be offered for free, something that requires hard cash.”
On the U.S. Forces Korea, Roh said the Justice Party opposes withdrawal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula and that it was a separate issue from the nuclear negotiation. I was impressed by his composed perception of reality not affected by idealism.
One can only imagine why he made the extreme choice of suicide. We can only guess from his note that he could not bear the burden of accusations that he received illegal funds worth 40 million won ($35,533) because he was known as a clean politician.
After his death, media outlets highlighted his career as an advocate for workers and the working class, as a progressive icon and brilliant orator. Personally, I remembered him by his words of reflection at that last Washington meeting.
While the Democratic Party’s floor leader, Hong Young-pyo, and the Liberty Korea Party’s Kim Sung-tae were arguing over small business owners’ resistance to next year’s minimum wage increase, Roh said, “The ruling Democratic Party hasn’t been honest about it, and the Justice Party wasn’t, either. The point is not whether to raise the minimum wage or not, but whether to continue reforming the labor market.
“The core problem is that there are too many competitors,” he continued. “Twenty-eight percent of Korea’s economically active population owns small businesses compared to 7 percent in the United States. In this competitive structure, lowering credit card fees for small businesses to the 1 percent level or revising the commercial lease protection law will not solve the problem. Seventy percent of new restaurants go out of business in less than a year, and 600,000 people have hairdresser’s licenses, the same size as our military force. They can make a living when they serve 20 customers a day. That means 12 million people have to do their hair every day to make a living.
There might be varying opinions about Roh’s accomplishments and mistakes. That day in Washington, Roh maintained that he did not receive illegal money. But even if no favors were asked of or given, taking such funds has no justification.
The option of closing an ongoing investigation after a suicide is not desirable. The Justice Party is not right to criticize the investigation as “targeted.” As Roh wrote in his will, we should demand accountability.
Yet many other politicians who are suspected of far more serious and grave charges brazenly continue to live, and many politicians continue to carelessly promise populist policies. Roh’s honest reflection in the last days of his life has left us with some heavy homework.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 25, Page 30