Roh Moo-hyun, A Man of the People (1946-2009)

by The Economist, 04/06/2009

The tiny village of Bongha, in south-eastern Korea, is surrounded by rice-paddies and steep woods. After 2008, however, its biggest attraction was Roh Moo-hyun, the former president. It is not every day a son of Bongha peasants ends up in the Blue House in Seoul. As Mr Roh in retirement rode his bicycle round the streets, crowds of tourists would run after him. As he stood smoking familiarly at his garden gate, visitors would clamour for a photograph. People who had never much cared for him as president—too quick to take and cause offence, too keen to raise a convivial glass with North Korea’s weird and inscrutable Kim Jong Il—signed on to the website Roh Sa Mo (“We Love Roh”), and joined a nationwide fan club.

Mr Roh was an anti-corruption president. In South Korea,swiss replica watches that is saying something. The two sons of Kim Dae-jung, the country’s most famous modern leader, were imprisoned for graft. Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, both former presidents, went to jail for soliciting hundreds of millions of dollars from the country’s biggest business groups. Mr Roh, a son of the soil who had taught himself well enough to get through South Korea’s ferocious bar exams, was thought to be different. When he came into office he was candid, moral and refreshing. And when he left, going back to unassuming Bongha, he enhanced his reputation as a man of the people who, though he governed in turmoil and controversy, was at least clean.

He campaigned for virtuous causes all his life, beginning in 1981 with his defence of students arrested and tortured by the Chun regime for possessing banned literature. When he saw “their horrified eyes and their missing toenails”, he said later, his comfortable lawyer’s life was over. In the mid-1980s he abandoned law for politics, fiercely denouncing graft during televised hearings in the National Assembly. He did not always win popularity, or re-election. But he caught the attention of Kim Dae-jung, organised Mr Kim’s successful run for president in 1997 and surprised perhaps even himself by squeaking into the presidency five years later.

His term was tumultuous. Businessmen hated him, remembering his support for striking workers in the “June Struggle” against Chun in the late 1980s, and seeing him as a leftist maverick intent on redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor through higher taxes. Established bureaucrats and politicians despised the youthful, callow fellow-protesters he brought in with him. Several cherished proposals, including one to institute more checks on the president, went nowhere. At one point Mr Roh was impeached for a minor breach of election rules. But he was not convicted.

The Americans were gravely disturbed to see him improving links with Pyongyang, striding keen as mustard down the fluorescent pink carpet towards the potbellied little tyrant in his zipped-up uniform. Korean troops for Iraq, and a free-trade accord with the United States in 2007, did little to soothe suspicions that he was anti-American. When Mr Roh and George Bush met in Washington, their body language loudly betrayed how mutually ill at ease they were.

The shoemaker’s bribes
Yet Mr Roh was also ill at ease with himself. He had plastic surgery round his eyes, complaining that his eyelashes were poking his eyeballs. Koreans assumed he wanted to improve his looks. He never managed diplomatic small-talk, tended to say the wrong thing, and packed his own instant noodles for state trips abroad. He radiated scorn for those who, unlike himself, had been to university. “Stone bean”, as his family called him, the tough, poor youngest son, had risen past all of them without it. While they had been at Seoul National University, or Oxford, or Harvard, he had been pouring cement and mending nets. Yet he admitted early in his term that he felt “incompetent”. The burden of office weighed heavy.

Behind the scenes, too, the pure president was caving in to the allurements of his job. Bribes were offered by a wealthy sports-shoe manufacturer in Pusan, which Mr Roh had represented. It was alleged that Mr Roh’s wife, his childhood sweetheart, had taken $1m, and his son-in-law $5m. After he left office, the police said they wished to question him. Mr Roh denied that anything untoward had happened.

In April, however, he used his blog to make a statement headed “I Apologise”. Mr Roh said his “household” had received the money to help settle a debt. “I feel ashamed before my fellow citizens,” said Mr Roh. “I am sorry for having disappointed you.” He had not been such a bad president as far as foreign policy or the economy went. But those efforts suddenly counted for nothing.

On May 23rd he went hiking, as he often did, in the hills above Bongha at dawn. Earlier in the spring fire had swept through the new green woods, blackening them. Before he left the house, and before he jumped from a high cliff into a ravine, he had left a note to his family on his computer. He said he had “made the life of too many people difficult”. But “Don’t be too sad. Isn’t life and death all part of nature? Don’t be sorry. Don’t blame anybody. It’s fate. Please cremate me. And please leave a small tombstone near home. I’ve long thought about that.”

Roh Moo-hyun, the past president of the Republic of Korea was born 6 August 1946 and died 23 May 2009. He is survived by his wife and their son and daughter.

Photo from Wikipedia

This obituary appeared in the Economist on 28 May 2009
You may also want to read Michael Breen's column of 4 June 2009 at

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