Death of an Ex-President

Whit here:

“Teacher, teacher did you hear about President Roh?”one of my most animated kids, Gene(Seung Ho), said to me as soon as I walked into class this morning. Then Gene drug his forefinger across his neck as if slitting it, the Korean sign for death. “Yeah,” I said, “sad isn’t it?” “No,” Gene said, “Exciting!”

Gene’s nonchalance was unfortunately common among the kids today when asked about Roh Moo Hyun. Yet this was among the 6-12 Korean population, definitely not the voice of the country.

If you haven’t heard, Roo Moo Hyun was the 16th president of Korea serving from 2003 to 2008. He built a reputation for being honest, anti-American and took a conciliatory approach toward North Korea. He was a self-educated lawyer (passed the bar exam without going to law school) and represented many student activists in the 1980s. One of his most famous pre-presidential moments was throwing his parliamentary nameplate at then military dictator Chun Doo Hwan. Chun was the same guy that brought Gwangju to a boil in May of 1980. When Roh ran for president he used his humble beginnings, lack of experience and opposition to the big businesses and corruption to win over many Koreans. He is said to have been the only president not to win because of regionalism.

But as with many former Korean presidents, scandal followed Roh. This year an investigation centered around him for bribery. Roh stated on his website as the trail came closer to him,”My family made the request, received money and used it.” In May, prosecutors summoned Roh’s wife, son, and Roh on suspicion of receiving a total of 6 million dollars in bribes from Park Yeon-Cha, a businessman close to the ex-President. “Overwhelmed by shame,” Roh was questioned by prosecutors in Seoul, and his guilt looked certain.

Then on Saturday, unable to deal with his fall from grace, Roh wrote a suicide note, went for a hike with a guard up a mountain behind his house and threw himself off a 100 ft (30 meter) cliff around 6:30 Saturday morning. He died a couple of hours later at hospital in Busan.

We heard the news late Saturday morning while camping off the coast of Mokpo. Our Korean friend was in shock. The cab driver we had the next day was teary-eyed listening to the details on the news from her TV on her dash. One of our co-teachers admitted to shedding tears for Roh. Many Koreans went to Roh’s hometown to pay their respects to the former president and Korean search engines changed their website colors to gray and black.

Though Gene made light of the situation, much of Korea hurt along with Roh’s family. Perhaps Gene and his classmates have grown numb to high-profile Koreans taking their own lives. In our 20 months here it seems someone famous commits suicide every 3 months. But maybe Gene and the rest of Songwon was just in rare form, trying to figure out how to deal with something so tragic. Or maybe they found comfort in Roh’s suicide note.

“Don’t be too sad. Life and death are both just a part of Nature, aren’t they? Don’t feel sorry. Don’t blame anyone. It’s all fate.”