Friday, May 29, 2009

Who was President Roh Moo Hyun? Educating myself in order to understand Korea's grief . . .

UPDATE: Check out Ask a Korean's post about President Roh

A Retrospective: Former President Roh Moo-Hyun, 1946-2009

***Read Ask a Korean's post before you even consider looking at mine. His post has a breadth and depth that I can't even begin to get close to . . . my post is merely an attempt to get people to do a bit of reading on their own, and to share my general impressions about the man based on a very limited amount of reading. Ask a Korean's post is the one to read--period.

This morning in my 3 hour lecture with the Korean in-service trainees for the 6 month Intensive English Training Program I was shocked to see so much grief on their faces.

One of the trainees, a woman in her 30s, was almost openly crying in class. In fact, at one point she was crying but hid it well.

The 3 hour lecture began at 9 and when the 10:10 to 11:00 hour ended I went to the bathroom, refilled my water bottle, and came back to find the computer and power point projector being used to watch the live TV feed from the Internet for the funeral . . .

The class captain asked me if it'd be okay if they watch a few minutes of the funeral--and I said yes, of course.

Surprisingly, after about 3 minutes several of the trainees looked over at me standing against the wall watching the screen and surreptitiously watching them to see their reactions . . . and they asked me to turn it off and continue with my reading strategies lecture--wow.

I 'understand' why Koreans are so affected by President Roh's death and suicide, but I don't understand it in the way that Koreans do. What I mean by this is that Koreans think with their hearts (an idea I read about in "Korea's Place in The Sun") and when you mix that with the social family paradigm you get the entire country grieving for the death of this man as though their own father had died . . . it's something that foreign people really can't comprehend fully no matter how long we live and teach here. We can get a glimpse of this powerful Korean mind-heart and the passionate intensity of thought-feelings expressed from the core of one's being . . . . but I truly believe that we can never totally experience it, and never fully KNOW it.

I decided that I NEED to do some reading about President Roh's life because I'm 99.9999% certain that it's going to come up in those organic tangential discussions that always happen during a lecture.

While reading I was listening to music off of youtube, and Paul Pott's performance of "La Prima Volta für Flashmob in Oberhausen" in the middle of a shopping mall food court . . . well, it actually made me a little choked up . . .

In a strange kind of way the lyrics of the song feel appropriate to me while writing about trying to understand the love that the Korean people have for President Roh, and the intensity of grief that is being expressed.

From wikipedia's entry,

Roh Moo-hyun (Korean pronunciation: [no mu hjʌn]) (6 August 1946 – 23 May 2009) was the 16th President of South Korea (2003–2008). Before entering politics, he was a human rights lawyer.

Roh's election was notable for the arrival to power of a new generation in Korean politics, the so-called 386 Generation, (i.e. people in their thirties when the word was coined, who had attended university in the 1980s, and who were born in the 1960s).

Reading this I have to wonder how many of the teacher trainees I have in my class were a part of the 386 Generation . . . I wonder about the kind experiences they must have had living through this period of Korean history . . .

This generation had been veterans of student protests against authoritarian rule, and advocated an assertively nationalist line towards the United States and Japan, and a conciliatory approach towards North Korea. They took up many positions on Roh's staff.

Wow . . . so some of the teachers in my class may, and likely were, political activists. I have no idea if this is true or not but it's something to consider. I think that teachers often make the same mistake that students make and erase the humanity, the identity, and personal history of their students because of how institutionalized the teacher-student relationship has become . . . by actively engaging in research about what impacts my students, and by actively humanizing my Korean trainees enables a deeper understanding of what takes place in my classroom--and at the most simple level is an act of developing and deepening compassion for them as they grieve in spite of my difficulties in understanding the WHY of their grief . . .

Roh was born in 1946 to a farming family in Gimhae, near Busan, in southeastern South Korea. In 1960, he led a protest at his school against mandatory essays extolling then-President Syngman Rhee. A high school graduate who never attended university, he worked at odd jobs after serving in the Korean army.
(my italics, my bold)

Alright . . . I'm really starting to realize that this is a man who defies the typical stereotypes of passive mindless obedience to authority that too often characterize how Korean culture and people are seen by new foreign teachers (I was one of those) . . . after living and teaching here, and learning more about the history and culture of Korea it becomes apparent that this is not true.

In 1981, he defended students who had been tortured for possession of contraband literature. In early 2003, he was quoted as saying, "When I saw their horrified eyes and their missing toenails, my comfortable life as a lawyer came to an end. I became a man that wanted to make a difference in the world."

I'm beginning to get a better sense of who 'Roh the man' was . . .

He opposed the autocracy in place at the time in South Korea, and participated in the pro-democracy June Struggle in 1987 against Chun Doo-hwan.

Not something you did lightly at that time. The risks of physical injury, jail time, and other penalties . . . wow.

He grilled the government over political corruption allegations in a parliamentary hearing, which won him his first public attention.

In 1990, he did not participate in the Democratic Liberal Party and he criticized Kim Young-sam. Instead, he joined the Democratic Party, a faction of the Democratic Reuinification Party. He ran for re-election in 1992, but was defeated. He ran for the mayor of Busan in 1995, but was defeated by the candidate of Democratic Liberal Party. Shortly after the election, Kim Dae-jung founded the National Congress for New Politics, but Roh criticized the party and Kim Dae-jung unfavorably. (my bold, my italics)

I have this very ignorant impression of Koreans as people who do not openly criticize higher ranks . . . and while I know it's not true I all too often feel this about the 'majority' of Koreans. Yet here is an example of a Korean who spoke out, who refused to be silenced about human rights issues, corruption, and other controversial issues . . .

In 2000, Roh was appointed as the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries under Kim Dae-jung, and this position would later constitute his only real government experience prior to the presidency. Roh would later use his lack of experience to his advantage in a populist presidential campaign, depicting himself as a newcomer and outsider unbeholden to the traditional business and political elites.[19] Roh won the presidency on 19 December 2002, by defeating Lee Hoi-chang with a narrow 2% margin of victory. Roh's surprise election was made possible by a last minute Internet and text message campaign that targeted younger voters[20], as well as a wave of anti-American sentiment[21] that had swept the country in the previous year.
(my bold, my italics)

Roh must have been a breath of fresh air for the suffocating Korean people under the previous administrations. This is something that as a Canadian I have no personal basis from which to relate to and understand how Koreans, especially the 30-something generation/young voters who supported him, are grieving the loss of this man.

Reading the rest of the wikipedia entry on Roh it looks like he was a very HUMAN president. That he was not this untouchable unapproachable man ringed by riot police and water canons unlike someone else in office . . .

Three months into his presidency, Roh bolstered skepticism about his ability and experience when he stated, "I feel incompetent as president and a sense of crisis that I will not be able to perform my presidential duties."[24] Roh set the tone of his administration with a number of political gambles, including threats to quit pursuant to a national referendum[25], and measures to uncover and reveal the names of the descendants of Japanese collaborators more than six decades after the Japanese had left Korea. The investigations, criticized as politically motivated, and coming far too late to provide any substantive redress, mostly resulted in damage to his own party members.
(my bold, my italics)

I don't know the history and politics of this well enough to make an informed opinion . . . that being said my sense of a president being willing to investigate collaborators is a good thing regardless of the passage of time.

Reading through the section about Roh's presidency after the attempted impeachment seems to illuminate the primary problem for Roh as a president that is mentioned earlier in the text: "In 2000, Roh was appointed as the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries under Kim Dae-jung, and this position would later constitute his only real government experience prior to the presidency." (my italics, my bold)

Roh was a man of big dreams yet seemed to lack the political saavy to make them come true. One of these dreams was,

As part of his "balanced national development" campaign to reverse the concentration of wealth in Seoul, Roh also pursued a plan to relocate the capital 100 miles away to Chungcheong . . . After much controversy, the Constitutional Court obviated Roh's plans by ruling that the relocation of the capital was unconstitutional, thus inflicting a huge blow to Roh's political standing. Roh's plan was then amended to the creation of an "administrative capital," though this plan too never saw completion.
(my italics, my bold)

I think the song "Le Temps De Vivres" (see an original performance by George Moustaki here) is a song Roh might have liked,

Nous prendrons le temps de vivre
D'etre libres mon amour
Sans projets et sans habitudes
Nous pourrons rever notre vie
Viens, je suis las, je n'attends que toi
Tout est possible, tout est permis
Viens, ecoute, les mots qui vibrent
Sur les murs du mois de mai
Ils te disent la certitude
Que tout peut changer un jour
Nous prendrons le temps de vivre
D'etre libres mon amour...

We will take the time to live, to be free, my love,
Without being tied down to the daily routine,
We will be able to dream up our life.
Come, I am here; I am waiting only for you.
Everything is possible; everything is allowed to come.
Listen to the words that shimmer on the walls of the month of May.
They tell us that everything can change at some time.
Everything is possible; everything can change one day.

Roh definitely was a man of vision and I have to respect him for pursuing his dreams in spite of almost insurmountable odds.

Another piece of music sung by Chanticleer I was listening to while reading and writing this blog,

During the visit, Roh proclaimed he would not seek any more apologies from Japan over its colonial occupation, in the hope of maintaining a friendly relationship between the two countries. Although Roh's proclamation was made in good faith, some expressed concern that Japan may have interpreted this as the termination of its responsibility for the colonial past, and use it as an excuse to deny any claims for compensation that may arise in the future.

On this particular issue I have some issues with wondering how Roh the human rights lawyer and activist would even consider doing something like this . . . the Comfort Women have not yet had their grievances fully resolved and an official apology given to them by the Japanese government.

If anything says how much Roh was liked by the people of Korea it might be this,

After leaving office, Roh retired to Bongha Maeul, a small village in his hometown. This marked a break with previous custom, where former presidents retired to heavily guarded houses in Seoul.

I really don't know what to think about this . . . I remember reading about it when the Korean news was talking about it . . .

Since he left office, an investigation found that 238 computer disks, including the 72-terabyte presidential records of Roh administration "disappeared" from the presidential residence sometime before President Lee Myung-bak took office in February 2008.[55] Roh claimed that it was approved by President Lee. This disappearance was controversial for a few months, and ended with Roh returning the archives.

And finally a series of events that lead to the loss Korea is now grieving for . . .

Roh's self-righteous stance resulted in harsh condemnation of the ex-President for hypocrisy when the scandal broke,[69] a criticism he himself acknowledged in a message on his website when he stated, "I have lost my moral cause just with the facts I have so far admitted. The only thing left is the legal procedure"[70] Roh further added, "What I have to do now is bow to the nation and apologize. From now on, the name Roh cannot be a symbol of the values you pursue. I'm no longer qualified to speak about democracy and justice.... You should abandon me."[71] Despite these appeals, Roh continued to deny all knowledge of the receipt of money by his family from Park Yeon-Cha, in contradiction to Park's testimony.[72] Roh refused cross-examination with Park.

And this is why I want the investigation to be re-opened. Roh's name should be cleared of these allegations if he was innocent. If the investigation is never re-opened his name will always have the taint of corruption on it that diminishes him as a human rights lawyer and man of the Korean people . . .

Roh Moo-Hyun died on 23 May 2009 after jumping from a 30-meter (100 ft) high cliff known as Bueong'i Bawi (lit. Owl's Rock) behind his rural home in the village of Bongha.[15][79] He sustained serious head injuries and was sent to a hospital in the nearby city of Busan at around 8:15 a.m. (23:15 GMT) and pronounced dead at around 9:30 a.m. (00:30 GMT).[15] According to his lawyer, Roh left a suicide note on his computer saying life was "difficult" and apologized for making "too many people suffer."[15]

Roh's last words,

I have owed to too many people. The amount of burden I have caused to them is too great. I can't begin to fathom the countless agonies down the road. The rest of my life would only be a burden for others. I am unable to do anything because of poor health. I can't read books, nor can I write. Do not be too sad. Isn't life and death all part of nature? Do not be sorry. Do not feel resentment toward anyone. It is fate. Cremate me. And leave only a small tombstone near home. I've thought this for a while.

And I'll end this post with two songs that I think offer some solace to Korea.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I did not die.
written by Mary Elizabeth Frye


ballsuni said...

Appreciate your effort to understand.. I'm a bit younger than 386 (born in 75, attended Univ in 90s) but growing up during the dictatorial administration (Chun DooHwan and Roh TaeWoo, who did coup etat and are responsible for many people's death), I could connect to Roh MooHyun and have had sympathy for his fruitless effort against conservative news media/mainstream politics. At least he was the most honest Korean politician I've seen.

Jason said...

Thank you. "he was the most honest Korean politician I've seen." That's the impression I got after reading a bit about him too.

I didn't have the time or energy to surf the Net on Google to see what else might be written in English about him other than news articles from the Korean English news sites . . . . I don't know if there'd be much about him in terms of biography and personal stories. I think it'd be more news about his presidency.

Anyways, thanks for reading, and I hope you're not feeling too sad.


John from Daejeon said...

Jason, you are generalizing “all” Koreans together. Not everyone was taken in by the spectacle yesterday. Most of my co-workers were just happy it was over, so the country can get back to focusing on the living. I think you see it differently as you work with a specific age group that haven’t had the hard lives, or all the life lessons, that many older generations have had. Same thing with the "Mad Cow hysteria," that noisy squeaky wheel garners all the attention, while the others just keep turning and doing their jobs knowing that eventually things will get back on track.

For myself, at least, this president was, and is, a much better role model that all people should want to emulate.

“My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” – Abraham Lincoln

Arguably, the greatest president the U.S. has ever had, Abraham Lincoln, was considered a failure many times during his life. I’m just grateful that he didn’t take the Korean way out after any of his numerous failures.

Jason said...

Hi John,

I know I was 'generalizing all Koreans' . . . I didn't want to split hairs and quantify and qualify things when I have no basis for those kinds of observations . . . I do think it's pretty safe to say that the *"country"* is in mourning . . . and I'm assuming a degree of sophistication in people who read this blog and their ability to filter and process my writing . . . that being said I think I might edit a few things later . . .

I take a slight issues with you juxtaposing the "Mad Cow" hysteria with the grieving and sense of loss that a lot of Koreans are feeling . . . I'll agree some are probably doing it because everyone else is, but I think mad cow should not be brought into this discussion . . .

"a specific age group that haven’t had the hard lives, or all the life lessons, that many older generations have had." I don't know if I agree with devaluing the challenges and hardships of one generation because the older generations lived through the Korean war, the post-war era and the following oppressive administrations . . . in some ways this kind of logic could be applied to minorities in the USA that say they have it hard now, had it hard during their growing up period . . . and responding to that by saying they shouldn't complain because even older generation minorities had it harder . . . ? I think I've made my point.

Anyways, thank you for reading, and I'll think about your comments more during the course of the day.

John from Daejeon said...

I brought up "mad cow" because of the fact that his suicide will be used to further the agendas of those who are preying off legitimate grief-stricken mourners, and it is still fresh in our collective memories.

I saw this agenda first-hand yesterday, as the only person in my place of business watching the funeral live off the internet was pushing his leanings off on impressionable children. These kids don't know that their teacher (who has no problem beating the crap out of them when they don't do their homework) was incarcerated for a crime he committed in his youth and is quite upset about his lot in life now and blames much of it on the system and is for an overthrowing of it.

I know how everyone pretty much wants everything (including change) to happen in a nanosecond (especially in today’s high tech world), but we also must think about doing the greatest good for the greatest amount of people possible. When things really go bad, things do tend to sort themselves out over time even if it sometimes takes a bit of a revolution.

I do hope that the man found peace, but now I have to worry about my young, and very impressionable, students seeing this as an admirable way out. Last year, we lost two ex-students who had a hard time with high school, and it hit us really hard. Now, I’m really dreading to see what this year might bring.