Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ex-Pres. Roh's Suicide: Wrong in So Many Ways

I'm still sad, bummed, disappointed, upset, angry, confused about this.

For the sake of Roh the man, I wanted to leave a few days to let this whole thing sink in, but dear readers, Roh Moo-hyun's suicide is bad for Korea in so, so, so many ways. It's not often you see a situation that just has no upside whatsoever, but this one really doesn't.

Here are all the ways Roh's suicide is bad, and for whom:

1. For Korea's political scene.

Korea's political scene has been plagued for SO long by a hyper-polarization of left and right. Various presidential candidates (including, I believe, Roh himself) got to the Blue House partly on merit of promising to end the regional antagonism, and the us-against-them bloodsport of partisanship in Korean politics.

The fact, at this point, that it appears (and reality matters very little to demagogues, as long as there is an appeareance) that Lee Myung-Bak's very zealous investigation into Roh's corruption pushed him to desperation will further deepen, and crystallize the polarization of Korea's political parties.

2. For Korea's image internationally.

Yeah. Ex-president committing suicide in the middle of a corruption investigation? Kind of the exact opposite of a PR coup.

3. For Korea's slow journey out of the old corrupt ways and toward transparency

See, it would have been embarrassing, yeah, for the man, and even for the country, if Roh Moo-hyun had spent some time in jail for corruption... then again, it would have sent a message to everyone in Korea, as Lee Geon-hee's resignation from the top spot in Samsung did in '08, that corruption is no longer acceptable in Korea, even from the rich and powerful. By calling off the investigation after Roh's suicide, he and his family get away with corruption. Sure, the investigators could hardly have done anything else, given the backlash they would have faced, but the fact is, Roh's suicide is a major setback for a country trying to climb the world transparency index.

4. For Korea's suicide epidemic

When Roh killed himself, he managed to buy his family the out they needed: the corruption investigation was called off. By calling off the investigation, the Korean government has validated suicide as a way to get yourself out of a jam.

(opinion article stating as much)

Repeat: Calling off the corruption investigation, though inevitable, has validated suicide as an effective option for getting yourself, or your family out of a jam.

And this is to say nothing of the way the high profile suicide trend continues, and, as newspapers print photos of suicide funerals where famous people cry and wear black, as newspapers publish photos of suicide sites, it makes suicide that much more prominent in the mind of a depressed kid, as an option for dealing with life's problems: "If Choi Jin-shil did it..."

5. For Korean prosecutors

It is a huge blow to the credibility of Korea prosecutors and justice department, that Roh's investigation both appeared to be politically motivated, and that it was called off upon his death. When it looks like they're serving as hand in glove for the ones in power, to crap on the ones not in power, rather than being focused on justice alone, and when public emotion rather than satisfaction of the law is the reason for calling off an investigation, the credibility of Korean law is damaged.

6. For President Lee Myung-bak

Yep. The death is going to be politicized by the president's opponents. Yep, just wait for the protests in the street to begin. Yep, they'll find other things to blame on him. It's gonna be a whole lot of ugly in downtown Seoul, again this summer. Just when you thought it was safe to have a Hi Seoul! Festival...

7. For the Roh family.

Of course. Let's not forget that a wife lost her husband, a son lost his father. While it's a shame that a man they're trying to grieve is going to be used as a symbol for so many other things in the coming months, in the end, after the politicians have squeezed every bit of leverage they can out of Roh the image, Roh the symbol, and Roh the martyr, a wife will still be mourning her husband, and a son will still be mourning his father.

8. For Roh's legacy.

I don't want to go too deeply into what his motivations might have been, but yeah, a suicide is a pretty explicit admission of guilt in the corruption case. Unfortunately, that case will now be the final word on the man's life, instead of possibly spending some time in jail, but then possibly doing some good work as a former head-of-state who'd been (hopefully) humbled, and a man who, at one time, stood for something a lot of Koreans, and particularly, a lot of young Koreans, believed in.


Garrett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Garrett said...

Back here in the States, this has actually been in the news quite a bit. I can confirm that this incident has reinforced Korea's image here as a "backward" country among many Americans, particularly the fact that the rest of his family is now getting a pass. Definitely a step backward, in any event.

EDIT: Just want to note that I don't share that view, I'm only passing along what I'm hearing. I wasn't much of a Roh fan, but I definitely feel bad for his family.

a yonsei student said...

Since I don't live in the states, the bad image part does not worry me too much, at least not immediately.

As a young, somewhat polarized Korean (who isn't?), I don't think we are idiotic enough to forget what we witnessed this spring; Politicians are another matter of course, but the tragedy of Roh's failed idealism has made a lasting impression on so many future voters. In 4 years, you will see the result of this political awareness, one way or the other.

Oh, there should be some good things that will come out. The opposition parties will have more political ammunition to resist Hannara's attempts to pass the Grand Canal scheme and internet-curbing laws in the parliament next month. Many people see these laws as rather undisputedly authoritarian and anti-democratic, so I don't think Roh would mind in helping.

Cantankerous bastard, we miss you.

Anonymous said...

Dubbed, "Salie-rhee" in Korean.

David said...

We in the West see suicide as an admission of guilt. I have been told emphatically by numerous Korean colleagues that people now see him as an innocent victim, willing to kill himself to declare his innocence. See, they have so little faith that the system will actually produce justice that they see suicide as the ONLY way to prove one's innocence. Also, it should be understood that the investigation of his family ended when he died NOT because the political will was gone but because the family were being investigated only as part of an inquiry into whether HE did something wrong. Subject dead = no more inquiry. The family was never in the wrong in the eyes of the law.

Brian said...

I came away with two impressions.

1) This of course makes suicide a more attractive option in a country where rates are quite high to begin with. I don't know how I feel about that. Well, sure, suicide is bad, and I wish people wouldn't take that route. But---and I don't have any academic sources on me---suicide is viewed differently here.

2. It shows how dangerous it is to be a former politician here, and how nasty the transition of power is in the Korean presidency. I mean, look at how many presidents have investigated or arrested their predecessors. No doubt politicians shouldn't be doing bad things, but it's like a line of dirty politicians arresting those slightly more dirty.

I like what Gangwon Notes had to say about it:
I was not a particular fan of him when he was alive and though I can find the strength to not badmouth him now that he is past, I cannot join in the praise he is receiving from the same people to attack him last week.

Brian said...

What I meant to add to my first point is that I think some foreigners do look down their noses at Koreans and their, um, readiness to commit suicide, and the sympathetic coverage it gets in the media. I mean, at least for us Americans we're out of countries that loves watching "Behind the Music" and glorifies drug-abusing musicians and actors.

Anyway, speculating on local politics and the ever-changing public opinion gives me a headache, so I'll stop.

dokebi said...

agreed agreed agreed agreed agreed agreed

i agree with you on all you've wrote here

i've been having similar thoughts about korea's international image, problems with corruption & suicide, etc.

about suicides, it's good thing that the government's going to censor out search terms like "how to die" etc: