As the title to this post suggests, I did not take well to reading of former President Roh’s (pronounced No) suicide in the news. I was troubled by this latest of markers that Korea is a country ravaged by suicides, and has been for a few years now. There are numerous excellent blog posts regarding the issue of suicide in Korea, so I will not attempt to rehash what has been said in them, and I will only provide here the basic data of Korea having the highest suicide rate in the OECD, in fact the highest in the world outside of the Eastern Bloc (inclusive of Kazakhstan).
As I’m sure we all now know, in the last few years Korea has suffered a spate of suicides, the causes of which seemingly being drawn from a small pool of usual suspects: depression, pressure in schooling or work, online verbal attacks by netizens, debt. As I said, the phenomenon of suicide in Korea has been discussed elsewhere to good effect, and so I would rather stick to this particular case, largely for its uniqueness. Roh Moo-hyun’s suicide is not just an unusual case in Korea, however, but also internationally. Until roughly a year ago, he was the president of the Republic of Korea, the most powerful and prominent man in the country. How did he fall so far and so fast (genuinely no bad taste pun intended), why is it such a sad story, and why do I associate it with hypocrisy?
Well, to explain these, it’s necessary to glance briefly back over his presidency. In the election of 2002, Roh stood against Lee Hoi-chang. Speaking about this in mid-2009, it seems reasonable to say that Barack Obama and John McCain represent a decent comparison of where Roh and Lee stood in relation to each other. By this I mean that Roh was by far the more liberal, younger and more politically sensitive of the two. He was the first of a new generation of politicians, and demonstrated that he could deliver a new style of government and politics for the younger generations of Koreans. Roh won about 60% of votes in the 20-40 age group, with Lee claiming just over 30%. The 40-50 age group was split about 50-50. It was only in the older generations that Lee managed to win popular support. What we should take form this is that Roh was able to empathise with those who did not grow up under the highly authoritarian governments of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. They were voters who grew up in a much freer society, where they didn’t suffer the same political and ideological suppression and oppression that their parents’ generation did. They lived in the internet age, with far greater access to information and far more discussion on important issues. On top of this, Roh was arguably the most liberal presidential candidate Korea had ever had. In a political climate used to military figures, authoritarian rule and veteran campaigners as their presidents, human rights lawyer Roh was a breath of fresh air.
Roh really was supposed to be the clean break, that crucial step forward into the modern democratic era. He decried corruption and actively sought to purge regionalism from Korea’s political landscape. He was a nationalist, but moderate enough in that respect to appeal across the board. He was the son of a ‘peasant’ family, and was even a leader of rebellions against the government of Chun Doo-hwan. This was the hype that surrounded his election campaign, and for my money, he tried very hard to back it up once he was in office.
He did attempt to free Korean politics from the grip of endemic corruption and regionalism. He even wanted to move the capital away from Seoul. He also opted to continue the Sunshine Policy of the previous administration, the policy of engagement and steps towards cooperation with North Korea. But it seems that Korea did not cope well with some of the changes Roh attempted to bring about. Perhaps Korea’s top-down age-based hierarchy prevented the desires of the younger generation(s) being put into practice. Another contributing factor evidently was that Roh was inexperienced when it came to actually being in a position to make the decisions. As mentioned, his attempt to move the capital failed completely, and it was an ill-advised move in the first place – just imagine if someone tried it in your country.
Roh did have moderate successes, but it was the negative aspects of his term that garnered most interest, especially from the press. His administration was accused of being incompetent in dealing with the economy, as well as other issues, such as moving the capital, or purging the corrupt politicians. I could give various excuses for why these failed, in defense of Roh, but the truth of the matter is that being a politician is about more than just having the right policies. That may be what gets you elected in the first place, but then you have to be able to turn words and ideas into action, and it was perhaps in this respect that Roh was lacking as a leader.
What struck me most, however, was how badly the media took to him. Most Korean presidents go through a stage when their popularity plummets, but for Roh this stage seemed to last for most of his term in office. As anyone who has spent time in Korea will know, the mainstream media has a great impact on popular opinion – more even than one might expect. It is for this reason that I say that Roh’s declining popularity was largely caused by the fact that the press didn’t like him. They focused so much on corruption within his party, his family, and his failures, that the general public turned against him in ever-increasing numbers. None of the accusations against him were particularly serious, certainly not by the standards of South Korean politicians. The simple fact of the matter is that Koreans have had to put up with far worse from some of their presidents, but this was masked by economic development or simply by oppression. In some ways, then, the transparency in politics that Roh fought for contributed heavily to his diminished support and in turn ability to achieve anything.
Perhaps what he was most renowned for was the attempted impeachment due to an alleged breach of election regulations. The rule he was accused of violating was that he openly supported his Uri Party before the election – the issue being that the party wasn’t formed until after he had taken office. He was found guilty, but his actions were not deemed to be serious enough to warrant impeachment, and he was allowed to continue his term. On the positive side, this little mishap sparked a protest on the streets of Seoul by supporters of Roh, asking for him to be allowed to continue.
The sign on the left reads: “Please let our country’s president do some work!”
As I’m sure many people will have read, Roh was also under investigation at the time of his suicide, this time for accepting bribes. This is what angered me most about the whole history of the media seeking to demonize Roh for fairly trivial matters, simply because they didn’t approve of him. Firstly, he has never been proven guilty. As I said, the case was ongoing, and has now been dropped. But to the media, it seems like this man’s taking of his own life is perfect justification to recirculate articles whose real focus is in making Roh look like a criminal and a fraud. Secondly, Roh has always claimed his innocence. He admitted that money changed hands, but we know that none of it was ever given to him. It was paid to two members of his family, and everyone involved has stressed that it was investment money, not a bribe, as is the accusation. I’m in no position to determine what the reality of the situation was. All I will say is that the total amount was about $6m, and I’m pretty sure that more than that has changed hands between other Korean politicians before and quite possibly since. Kim Dae-jung won a Nobel Prize for organising a summit that only happened because North Korea received money from the Hyundai Group in secret, just to get things moving I suppose – enough said.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this shouldn’t be investigated properly. My issue is that other presidents and prominent politicians have got away with far worse, but seemed to keep the right people happy, and nothing ever came of it. Roh was disliked from the start in some circles, and in my opinion they sought to tarnish his image to the general public. He certainly wasn’t the most capable nor the most effective South Korean president, but he clearly was a passionate man, who believed he was acting in the best interests of the people of his country. He represented a huge step towards more liberal politics in Korea, and a more modern way of doing things. One of the most frequent criticisms I’ve heard aimed at him since his presidency is that people were sometimes embarrassed by the fact that they saw him as a weak president. Basically, they wanted someone who could be more authoritarian. And yet we all know about their history with authoritarian presidents.
The Kwangju Uprising, 1980
The tragedy of the story is that he seemed to be a decent man, who tried to improve the situation in Korea, had moderate success in a political sense, and perhaps some small failures in a personal sense, and yet it is these that have hounded him, to the point that he would throw himself off a cliff. I look back and think of the effort he made before and during his presidency, and his striving for justice – don’t forget he was a human rights lawyer before he was a politician – in a system that has time and time again rewarded injustice and corruption. To reach a point where he felt that he could no longer achieve anything, having once been a man of so much purpose is what saddens me. I was not his greatest admirer as a president, but I do share many of his beliefs regarding what should be done to improve the country in which he lived. He was hounded unfairly by the media, and now that he’s dead the same media say how much he will be missed. The hypocrisy is a shame, and he deserved better.