The death of Roh Moo-hyun in an apparent suicide fills me with many thoughts. I was a visiting professor in Seoul during the period of his rise to the presidency. I remember the wave of enthusiasm surrounding his candidacy in autumn 2002, much of it from younger voters. He was the first Korean presidential candidate to emphasize the Internet as a means of rallying supporters. On election night, friends and I gathered to watch the returns. It was nearing the end of my sabbatical, so I was feeling very strongly about my time in Korea. I remember thinking that a new era was dawning. I still recall the next morning seeing one young man hurrying through the subway near City Hall Station early on, wearing the red bandannas that were popular at the time.
Roh's suicide seems to have been related to his vision as a leader and to the conclusion that he had failed. He said he could not save face and that he had been a leader for the sake of openness and honesty. Roh felt the allegations against his family members and him left no option. I think he committed suicide to save his family. I find this profoundly saddening.
I wrote a column at the end of Roh's first year in office. In it I stated the following, which I will quote at length:
. . . it would appear that the problems of money and politics are endemic, and while not limited to Korean politics, they are recurring and persistent issues, even for politicians who wish to remain above the fray like Roh. As former officials are investigated and charged, even the president's supporters have come under suspicion. Not only large conglomerates or chaebol but also medium- and small-sized companies are playing the high stakes game of donations for influence.
Here Roh generally has been on target, though much of his response thus far has been rhetorical in nature. His original and continuing refusal to accept such dealings resonates with the public. Yes, his own men are under suspicion, but he has clearly indicated that these actions occurred without his approval or warrant and has also staked his own credibility on the outcome of any inquiries. What else should be done?
I went on to suggest that national campaign finance reform be strengthened, including more requirements for public disclosure, limiting various forms of soft money donations, and increasing public funding of presidential elections.
It would appear that the problem of money in Korean politics has not disappeared. It is pathetic to view the images of Roh's wife, Ms. Kwon, and the family. There is such dynamism in Korean society, including among those mature women known as ajumma, or housewives. (I remember after the election reading that Roh's wife preferred the designation 'Ajumma Kwon,' which indicated a preference for having an egalitarian reputation.) The term used to designate the wife of a scholar-bureaucrat. Many of today's ajumma are skillful investors in their own right, just like women in other advanced countries. But to see the undoing of such a civil rights activist, leader for peaceful unification and idealist about bribes from a political supporter to family members is bitter dregs indeed. The last decades have seen an explosion of real estate investments by women in Korea. I recall the resignation of former Ehwa President and Prime Minister designate Chang Sang sometime earlier over this type of problem.
The death of Roh Moo-hyun is a call for Koreans on all sides of the political spectrum to invigorate their search for ways to limit the influence of money on political candidates and their families. Neither wives, children, nor political leaders themselves are immune.
Despite the tribunals, removals from office, trials and convictions, the problem of money in Korean politics remains strong. Roh's death should serve a purpose, and it is one the nation needs to act on badly. In many cultures, suicide to save face or in an action of extreme unction is seen as a form of heroism. In others, action out of shame requires a response by those who have prompted the shame to remove its effect. The death of a president should prompt sober reflection on this issue, new legislation, and another new day in Korea. Roh's death is a call to nothing less.