Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day

I was just walking out of Incheon Airport last night, following my hosts to their car, when one of them asked me if I'd heard the big news story. "Noh Mu-hyeon committed suicide today," he told me.

Things had unfolded in an amazingly short time. Early Saturday morning, the former president of South Korea had gone hiking near his home -- climbing up mountains is a popular pastime of the elderly here -- and then thrown himself off a cliff. He must have done it virtually in front of the bodyguard who was with him. At 9:30 a.m. he was pronounced dead at the hospital, and within a few hours the country was in mourning. It was reported that he'd left what amounted to a suicide note on his computer at home. In the early evening his coffin was brought back home and carried to the Town Hall by aides and family members. (Photo above from the Hankyoreh.)

Rather than quote the obituaries I've seen online, let me quote this article by the historian Bruce Cumings, which appeared in The Nation in 2003:
In December [2002] the South Korean people broke decisively with the existing political system, and the elites within it who date back to the Korean War, by electing Roh Moo Hyun. Roh is a lawyer who came up the hard way: Born into a dirt-poor family that could not afford college, he schooled himself in the law and passed Korea's notoriously difficult bar exam on his first try. In the 1980s, during the Reagan-supported dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan, Roh defended many human rights and labor activists at the risk of his own career and life. Amazingly, for presumably anti-Communist South Korea, his wife comes from a family that was blacklisted for decades: Her father was a member of the South Korean Labor Party in the late 1940s, a Communist party outlawed by the US Military Government that ruled the South then; he was arrested for allegedly collaborating with the North during the Korean War, and died in jail. Roh's sharpest break with the past, though, is his constituency. His election was boosted mightily by a burgeoning movement among younger Koreans against the seemingly endless American military presence in the South, conducted in successive, truly massive and dignified candlelight processions along the grand boulevard in front of the US Embassy in Seoul. Routinely labeled "anti-American" by the media, these demonstrations were in fact anti-Bush--like so many others.
After he left office in 2007 charges of corruption were leveled against Noh, primarily involving large sums of money allegedly given to family members and to Noh himself. This prosecution was what evidently led to his suicide. It's hard to sort it out: I'm inclined to suspect a political element in the investigation, as are many Koreans, since the Korean Right like its American counterpart is big on getting back at political opponents. It doesn't diminish my suspicions to learn that the prosecution will be dropped in the wake of his death. I have the impression that despite the accusations of arrogance and self-righteousness that have been thrown at him, Noh quickly realized that he wasn't a very good president. His only real political experience was a brief term as Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries under his predecessor Kim Dae-jung. According to a rather blatantly biased Wikipedia article on Noh, his biggest success in office was a "free trade agreement" with the US, a move that wasn't going to meet with much opposition from either the local Right or the US itself -- his main political antagonists -- and was almost calculated to offend his core constituency, since South Korea has had hard experience with "free trade" in the past dozen years.

Now it looks as though his death may galvanize opposition to Lee Myeong-bak's administration, despite the predictable calls for reconciliation. Lee has been trying to stifle dissent of any kind at least since last summer's candlelight vigils, which nearly brought down his government. It hasn't been as easy as he must have hoped -- the courts just threw out arrest warrant requests for some labor leaders he wanted put away, for example -- but while his opponents have the numbers, Lee has the guns. (And like our own President Obama, Lee wants to focus on the future, not on the dead past.)

Last night in Seoul, "mourners clashed with police who seized their makeshift tents and cordoned off the memorial altar with buses to prevent them from holding rallies," as the Korea Herald reported it. (Photo above is from the Hankyoreh.) Of course any assembly of people the government doesn't like is now illegal, but it's hard to suppress public mourning for a dead recent president. Lee, and Korea, may face a long, sad, painful summer.