In The News

Roh Moo-hyun’s Funeral

June 3, 2009

Standing in Gwanghwamun, the heart of downtown Seoul, amid the sea of sobbing mourners at the funeral of the former Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, a curious déjà vu struck me.

Out of nowhere, the scene in front of me overlapped with a black and white footage of the funeral of Park Chung Hee I had seen some years ago on a local history channel. For a moment, the connections seemed rather unclear. Then it hit me: there was something unusual to the public grief toward the deaths of these two men that somehow surpassed the loss of a political leader.

For years growing up in Korea, I always wondered why there was such hype surrounding Park’s glory in our history textbooks. True, his life was a little more dramatic than the others – the longest-serving president who led a revolutionary coup before he was assassinated by the head of his own intelligence service.

But the country has witnessed the conclusion of presidencies that were just as compelling and eventful as Park’s in the past few decades. Out of ten presidents since the founding of the Korean Republic in 1945, one died in exile; another was forced out of office by his successor’s military coup. Two were sentenced to death and then pardoned a year later. The sons of two others were jailed for corruption charges – even though one of those, Kim Dae Jung, was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Even so, no other Korean president seems to have attracted more love and hate than Park did, a man cited in today’s media 30 years after his death as both a “dictator” and as the “hero” behind the country’s economic miracle – until Roh came along.

Last week, the country observed a grim scene. Roh, an outspoken, and often militant, liberal, killed himself by jumping off a cliff near his retirement home. A month earlier, he had been called into the prosecutor’s office for an investigation over a bribery allegation. For days, the question remained in many of our minds: what does it take to push a man of his stature to the edge of a cliff?

As the hearse of Roh passed the streets of Seoul on Friday, sheer disbelief was palpable in the faces of many citizens. A group of men, some in business suits, climbed up to the roof of subway exits to watch the hearse passing. Riot police were everywhere, blocking the entry into the city square often used by local protesters for candlelight vigils, and fliers were sparsely posted on shop walls, some carrying anti-government slogans, others condolences for the loss of a man whose rhetoric on justice and hope was once so lively and refreshing that it even charmed young Korean voters who cared little about politics.

“Sorry we couldn’t protect you,” one flier on the wall read. “We were happy to have you as a president,” said another.

For many, Roh’s suicide was more than the loss of a political leader. Instead, his death seems to have resonated with a certain admission of defeat for the  revolutionary values and lack of compassion for the poor and uneducated in Korean society that Roh, a human rights lawyer with no college degree, had once symbolized.

By late evening, after the funeral, the streets of downtown Seoul had turned into a state approaching anarchy. Men stood on the portable platform of a truck on an empty, blocked road and shouted anti-government slogans; protest songs were flowing out of a loudspeaker and soju (liquor) bottles were tumbling onto the streets. The restless mood was furthered by the cheerless glimpse of routine city life – street vendors walking around with their carts full of steamed corn, fishcakes and hot dogs, offering them to mourners.

There is no easy explanation for the group mentality of a modern nation. Many of my American friends are still curious to know how someone like Roh, a man with little experience in high politics and with such a fanatical notion of social idealism, could have been elected as president of the world’s 13th-largest economy. But the death of Roh reminded me of an essay by Susan Sontag, an American writer and literary critic, who once described the importance of Simone Weil, a French philosopher known for her eclectic – and often purist – vision on life and modern literature.

Sontag wrote: “Some lives are exemplary, others not; and of exemplary lives, there are those which invite us to imitate them, and those which we regard from a distance with a mixture of revulsion, pity, and reverence.”

Perhaps this provides one way of understanding why Roh attracted such fervent love and hate from so many Koreans. He was a serious man, although his seriousness was stained with bias and self-deception at times.

During Roh’s funeral, Han Myeong-sook, the former prime minister under Roh, read out a letter to the deceased. In this deeply-emotional letter, her best wish to the late president was summarized in simple prose.

“Don’t run for president in your next life,” Han said. “Don’t get involved in politics ever again. Don’t live the life of a fool.”

Could mourners have said that at the funeral of President Park thirty years ago? Whatever it is, Han’s letter resonated with a painful reminder of the harsh reality facing modern Korean politics: this country still has a long way to go before achieving the genuine promise of democratic ideals.

Soo-Mee Park is The Asia Foundation’s public affairs officer in the Korea office. She can be reached at smpark@asiafound.org.

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