We are here today to mourn the death of former South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun. His death is significant on both personal and political levels, both for his family and for a nation mourning the death of one of its former leaders. While I’m sure everyone here is familiar with his story, I want to speak briefly about his legacy. A human rights lawyer who distinguished himself during the 1988 Gwangju trials, Roh Moo Hyun’s administration marked a watershed moment in South Korea’s young democracy, elected on a wave of progressive politics with the support of a new generation of political youth too young to remember military rule. Despite this, or maybe because of this, RMH had a difficult presidency. For the conservatives he was an object of scorn and disdain, while for the progressives he was criticized as not living up to the expectations of those that elected him. But people began to reevaluate his achievements in light of the Lee administration’s systematic dismantlement of what Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo hyun had put in place, and he became a symbol once again.
In less than 2 years, South Korea under Lee Myung Bak has already witnessed increased police brutality and aggression, reversals of welfare policies, increased use of the National Security Law to suppress dissent, and a realignment of the Sunshine policy. Lee Myung Bak’s policies of violent repression have been criticized by organizations such as Amnesty International, which accused him of ordering the use of excessive force against peaceful demonstrators protesting his trade policies during South Korea’s “beef protests” in the summer of 2008. On May 16 of this year, 486 union members were indiscriminately arrested and beaten after police blocked a peaceful march; those who were severely injured were forced to submit a statement of confession before receiving medical treatment. Lee Myung Bak’s latest infringement of democracy was his rejection of citizens’ requests to set up a memorial altar for Roh Moo Hyun at Seoul Plaza, which is now surrounded by a wall of police buses.
While Kim Dae-jung pardoned Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo (who had both left their presidencies with 100 times the amount RMH is accused of having received) and released them from life imprisonment for their roles in the deaths of hundreds of people in Gwangju, the Lee administration and the conservative media in South Korea launched a campaign to discredit the former president. The prosecutor’s office, rather than carry out a responsible investigation, leaked every detail, including unconfirmed ones, to the media as if they were dealing in celebrity gossip, making Roh Moo Hyun a prisoner in his own home and subjecting him and his family to sensationalist, politically motivated attacks.
For those that fought and lost their lives in the struggle for democracy in South Korea, the death of Roh Moo Hyun—in the face of not only former dictators who walk free but also of the dismantlement of hard-fought freedoms and increasing political repression—is a sign that the struggle did not end in 1987, nor did it end in 2003 with his election. Many Korean Americans immigrated here during the military dictatorship of the 1980s and still remember what it’s like to live under a climate of fear and repression; as Korean Americans, we support the SK people’s movement to preserve democracy and we honor Roh Moo Hyun for his contributions.