What nuclear bomb?

Annyong! Lindsay here on a glorious Friday afternoon in Korea. The weather is just amazing here right now. And I must say it’s great for my running regimen. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t want to get outside and pound my feet along the local mountain trails.

Tonight is Girls Night at the Altizer-Nash apart-uh as they say here. So I’m excited about a fun wine and cheese and gossip kind of evening with some amazing women. I feel so lucky to have made such great friends in Korea.

But on to the blog topic. Today was an interesting day for me and my brain. Why my brain you ask? Well, because, even after two years, sometimes it’s stretched in ways that I didn’t think possible. That’s what living in a totally different culture will do to you sometimes.

So, today was the very large and pompous funeral for Korea’s ex-president, Roh Moo-hyun. (FYI–Side note: Who in the heck translated that name into English? It is actually pronounced *No* Moo-hyun.) Last Saturday, as you might have read, Roh/No decided to end his life by jumping off a cliff near his home near Busan.

He had been under investigation for bribery and the conservative media and prosecutors were literally hounding him and his family and stomping his name in the mud. No big deal to us westerners. This is something we often see, especially in politics. But Roh/No championed himself as a clean politician. And shame is not something Far Eastern Confucian-grounded cultures take lightly.

Roh’s funeral in Seoul/ Reuters

So, to many Koreans, Roh/No went from a traitor to a hero over night, simply by jumping off a cliff. In their opinion, he bought himself respect and cleared his name in one fell leap. As the New York Times reported, “a national forgiveness took hold” and then evolved into outrage against the current Lee Myung-bak administration, which has been accused of hounding Roh/No’s family. At the funeral, mourners openly called Lee a murderer and shouted demands for him to apologize when he stepped forward to pay his respects.

My students–after the funeral–talked about how they wanted Lee to go jump off a cliff. Lovely. Can we please go back to the lesson now.

Now, to me, the whole ordeal is madness–especially at a time when much bigger news is happening. Oh, I dunno–like threat of war, nuclear weapons pointed directly at you, a former cease-fire now turned into an about-to-fire. All of these things are simply shrugged off as if swatting at the recent arrival of the summer mosquitoes.

But, today, at 11 a.m. when the funeral started in Seoul, our vice principal came over the loud speaker to inform the students to go back to their homerooms for the duration of the funeral. (Thank you, I thought, as I sent my moody, never-listen-to-me sixth graders along to mourn).

Whit and I found it a perfect time to plan for our upcoming trip around Asia in September. Insensitive, I know. We shrugged it off, wondering what the funeral would be like for an ex-president in America who committed suicide. We couldn’t even imagine–especially with the stigma and shame that surrounds suicide in our culture.

I took a break from our travel planning to go the bathroom and realized that every Korean teacher was in her separate classroom, watching the funeral and crying her eyes out. All nine of them. They were literally heartbroken. But it wasn’t the suicide that brought the tears. It was the idea that the current administration had killed him with their investigation. After we practically missed our lunch time, we stuffed our faces as quickly as possible as co-workers continued to sob through crab soup, kimchi and rice.

My western brain can’t accept suicide in any form–especially in the form of a noble exit. Whit and I both were quick to whisper to each other words of disappointment. “What a coward. How selfish. Now who is going to fend for his family?”

This man who ended his life so quickly and, in our opinion–cowardly–was being mourned, celebrated, and now lifted up as a hero.

Despite the fact that I’ll never consider suicide noble, I am doing my best to respect their country, their beliefs, and their ideologies. Sometimes that’s one of the best things you can do to stretch your brain in ways you didn’t think possible. And with just a little respect and communication, understanding goes a long way.

Now if we can only get North Korea to respect, communicate and understand a little–then the world will be a happier place.


  1. oh lady e says:

    Hi Whit and Lindsay! I’m working with Dan to find a teaching job in Korea, and I ran across your blog.

    Thought I’d throw my two cents (or more) in on the topic.

    Well, it’s sad to see that Koreans still believe that suicide will “cleanse their honor” and “save face”. Korea is definitely a strange contradiction between sleek “modernization” and traditional Confucianism.

    While Roh was popular to some degree (more for his colorful past than his actual work in office), the Korean community in the States generally disliked him and his “wishy-washy” policies. My parents are originally from Korea, and even they think that Roh Moo-Hyun’s actions were cowardly, foolish and wrong.

    It’s also unfortunate that some Koreans have decided to take it out on Lee Myung-bak, who has proved himself a much more level-headed politician (especially regarding his stance towards North Korea) than Roh Moo-hyun. Not too long ago, Koreans were praising Lee for his business savvy – he was, after all, a major player at Hyundai.

    It may be true that the government was ruthless in their investigation of Roh. The Korean government is not particularly known for its finesse, and the governing body definitely does not take scandal of any sort lightly. Countless years of corruption has cultivated a perfect breeding ground of suspicion and skepticism.

    Still, I find it hard to believe that he would take his life so easily, especially when he built his entire political background and life’s philosophy on “fighting the power”. If this were true, he should have fought to the end.

    Suicide comes across as an admission of his guilt, to put it bluntly.

    I’d also like to point out that in Korea, there’s that whole “public face” vs. “private face” phenomenon. I’m sure there are a number of Korean people who share your sentiment – that this was an act of cowardice, not honor. But they won’t say anything for fear of being judged by their peers.

    Wow, sorry for the long-winded rant! It’s just difficult to run into non-Korean people who have any interest in Korean politics. Please keep posting! 🙂


  2. Hi Oh lady E, thanks for posting your comments. We found them very interesting and informative, especially from a Korean American! Thanks again for reading and responding.


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