by YC


Can a black person be the president of the United States of America?

Can America be really comfortable with a man who has “Hussein” as a middle name?

Though president Obama isn’t, can a descendent of slavery sitting in the highest office in the country sit well with the descendents of plantation owners?

And if the answer is yes, then what are the wages? What is the price that needs to be paid for this to happen?

All analogies are problematic, and this one is problematic as well because this story is not about the US at all. It’s a story about South Korea. Where it’s been, and where it was going and where it is now. 22 years after it gained democracy. 12 years after military government was removed from power.

It’s also a story about a man who didn’t get a chance to obtain higher education. It’s about a man who nonetheless passed the bar to become a lawyer, and that human rights lawyer’s rise through government. The star turn as he threw a name plaque at dictator Chun Doo Hwan, and the eventual come-from-nowhere victory in the 2002 elections. He was an Obama for South Korea before there was an Obama in the US. (as documented in Annie Koh’s essay “Smart Mobs for President”)

Originally, in the spirit of 6.15 Joint Declaration, we wanted to talk about reunification in the June issue of the e*news. Issues facing North Korea, and how they need to be addressed. But sometimes, situations force your hand. Something of greater magnitude happens that you just can’t ignore. Like 5 million South Koreans that needed to go to a funeral. Like your Korean international student friends being all fucked up, can’t pick up work. Like getting calls from people you hadn’t talked to in years, because they needed to talk. Like an entire nation feeling, “Damn, I thought we were done with this…”

In the US, on the evening of May 22nd evening in Eastern Time, news broke that a former South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun committed suicide. Apparently, Roh jumped himself off of the rock near his house in his hometown, Bongwha village, while he was investigated by prosecutors due to the bribery scandal, the so called Park Yeoncha-gate. Prosecutors investigated not only Roh Moo Hyun but also his all family members including his wife, son and daughter as well as his older brother due to bribery by Park Yeoncha, who is accused to bribe both Roh and Lee governments.

The facts that US media reports stop at about these. Actually, to be fair the US media went a little deeper, about the controversies surrounding the scandal. Some of the better stories might mention the leaks by the prosecutor’s office that played more like TMZ than an investigation of a former president on corruption charges. (According to Cho Kuk, a professor of Law at Seoul National University, “The prosecutors continued on with their “public shaming”-style investigation, ignoring the basic etiquette of “not killing a general who has surrendered.”(The Hankyoreh, June 3, 2009)) Those stories might mention how the late Roh was being compared to former dictators Chun Doo Hwan, and his cohort Roh Tae Woo by the conservative media which had championed their policies. The major papers, Chosun, Joongang and Donga dailies, played were more than happy to play the part of National Enquirer, Star and Us magazines. So let’s give US media the benefit of the doubt, and assume that some of the coverage included this reality.

Let’s say that US media covered all this. That would still not tell the whole story, of why the nation seemed paralyzed by the death of a former president wildly unpopular during his term. (like, George Bush unpopular.)

Roh Moohyun vs People of power in 2002 election.

Roh Moohyun got his first shine when he won in Gwangju district at the first presidential primaries in Korea in early 2002. To understand the significance of Roh, from a peasant background in Kyongsang Province, winning in Gwangju, the heart of Jeolla Province, you would need to understand the deep-seated regionalism that dates back to the era of Silla and Baekjae kingdoms. His victory in Gwangju created a buzz that would put him on the map and propel him to represent the Millenium Democratic Party as its presidential candidate.

But success has its dues, and the rival pols and the conservative media started attacking Roh’s family. Roh’s father in law was a guerilla who fought for communist ideals. He took the red-baiting head on, however, dropping some hot lines in Incheon, like “I knew that my father in law was a leftist a long time ago. He passed away long time before we married. I knew that, but I got married. What is wrong with that? Do I have to dump my wife? If I do, am I qualified to become a president?” and “I will be the president who does not surrender to (conservative) media. … Chosun and Donga, do not involve in presidential primaries by Millennium Democratic Party!” It was bold move that played well with the younger generations. But this calling out of conservative media would foreshadow his rocky presidency as well as his untimely death.

Through the campaign, Roh’s rep grew bigger. There was the iconic photo of him throwing a plaque at Chun Doo Hwan during a parliamentary hearing in 1989. There was his experience as a human rights lawyer, running in the streets of Seoul with the masses rising up during the June 1987 democracy struggles. There were even the short stints in prisons for his protest actions. Different regions and neighborhood would form a cell organization in his support, called NoSaMo. And then there was his frank and direct approach when speaking publicly. He was the Obama campaign and McCain’s straight talk express rolled into one.

While his popularity was skyrocketing, he was still going up against formidable foe in Lee Hoichang. A renowned conservative from an elite background who had a strong base of support from his previous runs at presidency. In November of 2002, amid the wave of candlelight vigil protests against existing SOFA treaty, (in the aftermath of the US armored vehicle killing two junior high school girls and the US military court finding the soldiers operating the vehicle not guilty) Roh spit another fiery line- one that would be repeated by the US media in reporting his death. “I will not kowtow the US line.” A prominent backer from the Hyundai royal family withdrew his support for Roh days before the election. The conservative media had all but written him off. The liberal and progressive camps felt an impending doom under the conservative rule. But the Korean electorate had other ideas. In December, the election day came and went, and albeit narrowly, Roh had the most votes to win the election, even with the progressive Democratic Labor Party splitting some votes.

Impeachment of President Roh and mass demonstration


Even after democratization, the politics game in South Korea is not for the faint-hearted. Roh seems to have started a war that he could not seem to win, as the conservative media kept on the attack that was started during the primaries and general elections. Dude was poor. He comes from a peasant family. The man was never educated. Dude got lucky, riding the wave of internet buzz. These lines of attack might sound incredulous, but you know now why your parents might stress the importance of education.

His blunt and straightforward approach did not help, as well as some unpopular policy moves. Dispatch of South Korean troops to Iraq effectively undermined his credibility with many of the progressives that were his base. Then there was the proposal to move capital administration from Seoul to Daejon. And, goodness, my goodness, there was the real estate taxes that had the real estate speculators (meaning, most of the upper middle class and up) calling for his head.

The creation of the his own party (Uri Party) did not sit well with the Democratic Party, and provoked the political establishment the most. It was enough they had to deal with uneducated son of a peasant, but now he was creating a base from which to challenge their power. To understand political power in Korea, even the opposition liberal party (the current Democratic Party) was created by the wealthy after liberation in 1945, and the Democratic Party is the direct descendent of the landed interest at that time.

So the parliament staged a coup. In March of 2004, the Grand National Party, the conservative party that was a descendent of military dictatorships, and the Democratic Party, made peace to impeach Roh. That proved to be a bad move, however, as the Korean people, most of whom remember 1987 and knew how to settle beef on the streets, took to the streets with candlelights again to disapprove of the political power play. Come the parliamentary general elections in May, Uri party swept to majority status, and even the progressive DLP enjoyed double digit support. Roh won his seat back as well, when the constitutional court ruled against the Parliament’s vote to impeach Roh.

Who could embrace Roh?

Even if he was reinstated after huge candlelight vigils, Roh got criticized by both conservative and progressive. Roh was a reformist through and through, and unlike past presidents, he would refuse to use the power of his office to crush his opponents. In fact, he would try to reform the prosecutor’s office, which has been one of the most important tools used by the presidents to silence its opposition. His other policy included expansion of social programs and funding for NGO’s, raising real estate taxes to control housing costs and real estate speculation, (although he was trying to route investment/speculation to markets, not necessarily noble goals, this was one of the first policy that was repealed by the current Lee administration when he came to power) and reforms in education to right past wrongs. Past radicals that had been unjustly tried and/or murdered would get an apology and small reparations. These are mostly symbolic moves, but imagine if any pols in the US even started to think about reparations for past US wrongs. Like Frederick Douglass said, power concedes nothing without demand. And the power of the elites, entrenched in South Korean society dating to back to before Japanese colonialism wanted to concede nothing.

Then there were the progressives who attacked Roh for all the right reasons. The promise to not kowtow the US line seemed like an empty campaign promise in light of troop dispatch to Iraq, and giving free rein to the US military to move around its bases within the country. Then there was the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, which Nodutdol, in support of civil movements in South Korean and the US, has campaigned against successfully. (so far, as it refuses to die just yet.)

So at the end of his term, Roh was a president without a base outside a small group of fervent supporters in the civil society/NGO circles. His famous last words, when retiring from politics to move back to his hometown to lead a peaceful life farming in the countryside, (a modest dream many Koreans have.) was, “Wow, this feels great!”

The verdict on his presidency

To be fair, the economy during his presidency was the most stable since the military dictatorship. South Korea grew to be one of the world’s 15 largest economies, and there were no crisis manufactured by Kim Yong Sam’s liberalization policy and Kim Dae Jung’s ‘Let’s concede to everything’ (non) negotiations with the IMF. We’ve already seen a currency crisis with Lee Myong Bak’s attempt at monetary policy that was graver than any we’ve seen during Roh’s presidency. This doesn’t change the fact that more South Korean workers became ‘irregular’ (flexible and therefore expendable) during his presidency than any other, and the path to neoliberal globalization, FTA’s with Chile, US and EU among other nations, continued unabated during his term. Many of his valiant efforts at reforms failed, due to strong opposition but also his political guile. Political repression of farmer and labor movements continued, with some high profile deaths (e.g Posco strike and rice liberalization struggles) continuing at the site of labor and farmer struggles due to state violence. And despite the cool relationship with president Bush, it seems US-RoK military relationship were never in any real danger of breaking down.

But perhaps the most radical thing that happened during Roh’s presidency, is the way the Korean people looked at the office of presidency. Ever since the days of the dictatorship, the office of the presidency was to be revered, and not seen as a public office. During Roh’s administration people got real comfortable being publicly critical and even cussing out the president. Roh spent a lot of energy limiting the powers of his office, and the failed reform of the prosecutor’s office would come back to haunt him once Lee Myong Bak’s people took over the office of the presidency.

After the retirement


Let’s get back to the retirement- it wasn’t supposed to end like this. He was supposed to enjoy a peaceful retirement as a civilian. You see, what was seen in Bush as familiarity- the down to earth whatever, was a liability for Roh while in public office. Not any more. The man that changed the South Korean political landscape was back without having responsibility of the highest public office. When he returned to the village of BongHwa, he was back being the son of the peasant family. He was a human being again, being able to freely speak his mind. The star was back.

So how did the star come back? How does the wildly unpopular president get his rep back? Easy. By being himself. You see, BongHwa is a small village, and people would gather around his house to see him. Roh would roll out several times a day to accommodate, and to give speeches and lectures to delighted townfolks. People would start visiting the former president, and he would make time to meet with them, being embarrassed for his humble. He ran a website, titled, “World that People Live In” and would post his thoughts, his concerns, part of which had to do with how to accommodate people that wanted to see him. He would engage in conversations with people that would post comments on the site, about the issues facing South Korean society, and would read every comment. Imagine that, you could catch a former president of a G-20 nation on the low if you would just travel to his village. The dude was humble and had real people thoughts. He was a star to be sure, being a former president and all, but he blended in with the people of BongHwa village. Would you like a person like this? Forget Paul Wall, once again, Roh Moo Hyun had the internet going nuts.

There might have been something dangerous about this. A former statesman worried about ecologically sustainable farming on his small plot of land, (farming plots in a crowded nation like South Korea is not like what it is here.) and talking politics with people on the web. Or, maybe it was just an old grudge that needed to be settled. The prosecutor’s office, under already wildly unpopular Lee Myong Bak’s regime, came back on Roh Moo Hyun earlier part of 2009. The charge was the 6 million (appx. Converted to USD.) that his spouse received from an old friend. Roh came clean- his fam took the money without him knowing. He was wrong for not being on top of that. But he did not return any political favors for the money and it was not bribery.

To put it in perspective, 6 million is a lot of money to be sure. But it can buy you all of three apartments in Kangnam, the nice part of Seoul. In terms of South Korean political corruption, Roh was small time. Chun Doo Hwan did a bil. Roh Tae Woo did half a bill. The current president had scandal issues that he did time for. The amount doesn’t excuse the deed, but there is a need for perspective.

This is not lost on Korean people. Already the conspiracy theories abound. The way the investigation was done, and the rush to close the case and rule it suicide. 5 million people, or more than 10% of the population, came to pay their respects and his funeral was attended by 500,000 people. The Lee Myong Bak administration has had to deal with nearly an entire year of mass protests for his unilateral decision on beef imports, the sinking economy and the deteriorating relationship with North Korea. The only saving grace for the current administration is that the opposition doesn’t seem very organized. But its credibility is down the drain, with the economy tanking and the government stepping up its interference in everyday life. And now there is this politically motivated character assassination of perhaps the young republic’s nicest (best) president. Many people are thinking back to the days of dictatorships when political killings and disappearances were the norm, and state would use its power to crush its opposition.

So there is a lot of nervous energy emanating from the news coverage, how this energy will manifest itself, we don’t know. But June is generally a crazy time in Korean history. There are a lot of anniversaries, not the least important of which is the start of the democracy struggle on 6.10.1987. How the summer of discontent in South Korea, and the nervous energy of a shell-shocked populace dealing with a loss of its former leader due to apparent 70’s and 8o’s style political muscling up, remains to be seen.

Because while this is about Roh, this is also about so much more than that. It’s about the entrenched political elite not willing to concede an inch. It’s about this power reclaiming the lost time of liberal governments of the past 10 years. It’s about a young republic finding its democratic power, then having lost interest, being reminded that it can be taken away if you catch yourself slipping, or sleeping. And maybe, there needs to be a reminder here. That Roh was not the change that were waiting for, but one of the changes that we made possible. That this change doesn’t come easy, and that power doesn’t change once you have your people in office. They’ve known this from past struggles, and their propensity for mass protests, but maybe South Koreans need to find out again that indeed it is they themselves that are the change that they’ve been waiting for.