"I have owed too many people..."
May 28, 2009 9:19 PM   Subscribe

Former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide on May 23. The former president jumped from a cliff in his hometown, where he had retired to. A country mourns (video and articles 1, 2), and clashes (more, WSJ), over the legacy of the former human rights attorney who fought for the rights of student protesters and against the corrupt presidencies of the 80s, had his presidency saved by protests and activism in the electronic age, and at the end of his life found himself being investigated for bribery.

Roh practiced law, during the corrupt governments of former presidents Chun Doo-hwan (see also Gwangju Massacre) and Roh Tae-woo.

He set up his platform as being part of a new era of clean and open politics (video of an ad Roh ran during his campaign, where he plays upon the theme of being for the people and against corruption of the old by singing the famed protest song "Sang Rok Su." The ad says that "the people are the president," and talks about how much Roh is indebted to the public who supported him in hardship, like when he didn't have money to run, and there were people who sent him their piggy banks. His campaign line is drawn as being a new president for a new Korea), and broke from his Millenium Democratic party to start the Yullin Uri Dang (“Our Open Party”), even though his political career was continuously plagued with accusations of incompetence and corruption of those around him.

In 2004, Roh’s support for the Uri Party created an opportunity for the opposition party to vote to impeach him on charges of electioneering and incompetence. However, the impeachment also created an opportunity for a new chapter in Korean civic behavior, showing the potential of the fully-wired constituency of Korea as many supporters gathered online to voice their dissension and spread the message while organizing protests (video showing actor Moon Sung-geun giving a speech to protesters where he says the government "sees the people only as bugs" and asks for people to keep fighting against "the final gasp" of corruption, that the Korean people "have fought for with their lives" until now) and candlelight vigils. Videos and images spread of those in the assembly who supported Roh attempting to physically block the impeachment. spread online, and images of an assemblywoman dragged from her seat (4:58 in the video), as well as the triumphant looks of those of the Han Nara party, especially the grinning face of Park Geun-hye (5:37 in the video, daughter of former president Park Chung-hee, which made her involvement in the impeachment even more open to negative interpretation for those who found it undemocratic) further cast the opposition in a bad light when compared to images of Roh's despairing supporters who attempted stop proceedings even until the last minute by throwing objects (during the struggle, one politician even declares "I'm photographing all of this with my phone!"). In one of the more violent incidents, a man crashed his car into the National Assembly and set it on fire in protest. On May 14, 2004, the impeachment decision was overturned and Roh was reinstated as President.

He eventually retired to his hometown of Bongha Village, however, political scandal followed him even after he left office. An investigation revealed that records were missing, in particular, several terabytes worth of records disappeared before incoming president Lee Myung-bak took office. Roh eventually returned the missing records, and the scandal went away, but in early 2009, bribery allegations were brought up.

On May 23, 2009, Roh took a lone body guard with him on a hike to Owl’s Rock in his home village, where he fell. He sustained injuries that sent him to a hospital in Busan, where he died.

Many gathered around Bongha Village, which became a tourist spot after the president broke tradition to retire there, to pay their respects to the former president, even some major websites have taken on grayscale coloring to show their respects. And Kim Jong-il (the two previously met) sent his condolences.
posted by kkokkodalk (25 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
This is how obit posts should always be done! Great post, kkokkodiak!
posted by Effigy2000 at 10:08 PM on May 28, 2009

I've always liked this photo of him in Bongha, riding his bike with his granddaughter.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:34 PM on May 28, 2009

There's no shortage of online nationalist pissing-match antics when it comes to Korea, but Roh's death was largely greeted with solemn respect here in China and wistful regret that few local politicians show the same integrity.
posted by Abiezer at 10:35 PM on May 28, 2009

As someone who is Korean but knows very little about the culture and news, this was tremendously helpful and interesting. I really appreciate the post!
posted by carpyful at 11:24 PM on May 28, 2009

For the record, investigation into his death has just been reopened, so it may be too soon to unequivicoally declare suicide. There are a lot of strange factors around the death this much-maligned (and effectively ham-strung during his administration) Korean president.

Just the other day, the Lee Myung-bak government refused to allow ex-president (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Kim Dae-Jung to speak at the funeral, even though the Roh family had expressly requested that he do so.

This whole thing is a dispiriting and horrifying look into the disgraceful underbelly of contemporary Korean politics, and the Grand National Party (Hannara-ddang), especially, whose willingness to do almost anything for political gain is increasingly transparent.

President Roh, RIP, sir.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:54 PM on May 28, 2009

Great post.

I hope some good can come out of all of this. I had great hopes for him when he was elected, and great hopes for some real change in the way politics are done here. The fact that he failed in much of what he planned to accomplish -- a failure that could be laid at the feet of the political and business old guard who arrayed themselves in opposition to him as much as to the incompetence of his administration, perhaps -- does not detract from the fact that he did accomplish a lot, and if nothing else, proved that it is at least possible for an outsider to get his (or, to be sure, her) foot in the door. Now that that door is wedged open, much as the corrupt old men who still run the country would like to slam it shut, it will hopefully open wider, and real change can begin.

I hope.

Just the other day, the Lee Myung-bak government refused to allow ex-president (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Kim Dae-Jung to speak at the funeral, even though the Roh family had expressly requested that he do so.

I hadn't heard this, and although it doesn't surprise me as much as it should coming from those greasy corrupt cashed-up bastards, that's still infuriating.

I'll raise a drink to 노무현 this balmy Friday night. May his name live on as a man who tried, rather than one who failed.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:30 AM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

My wife and I are visiting Korea this week, and watching the mourning and outpouring of emotion over Roh's death. As an outsider, the whole process is quite facinating - the closest parallel I can find in my Canadian experience is the death of Princess Diana (or perhaps Terry Fox).

At first, we just noticed the memorial pavillions set up in every little town, with many people coming to pay their respects. Seeing men in tears was quite a shock compared to the stoicism my prejudices led me to expect.

Today we were travelling by bus during the funeral. Every television we saw was tuned to the funeral coverage, and many people in the bus stations were glued to them. On the buses, we got continuous radio or television coverage.

I knew little about him before this week, and your post helped add some context to what I've learned. Thanks!
posted by RecalcitrantYouth at 7:45 AM on May 29, 2009

Thanks for the depth and breadth you've provided to tell this man's story. This is an excellent post.
posted by notashroom at 9:22 AM on May 29, 2009

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.
From The Economist's obituary.

I wonder if this event will do anything to change South-Korea's political culture.
posted by Kattullus at 9:59 AM on May 29, 2009

Thanks for providing such rich perspective for us, kkokkodalk.
posted by ignignokt at 10:08 AM on May 29, 2009

Kattallus: That's why he took the nickname of "babo daetongryung," or "the idiot president." As he explained it, he approached politics without guile and the political machinations or schemes. Especially when you look back at all the times he apologized for his incompetence or talked about how he probably wasn't fit to be president, it looked like he was overwhelmed by running the politics game in Korea, whatever you believe about him. And the nickname stuck as a term of endearment. A lot of the banners being waved during his funeral procession had "the idiot president" written on them.

Roh's state funeral was marked by citizens gathering at 5 a.m. and letting loose yellow paper airplanes as the hearse left Bongha Village with Roh's remains to head for Seoul.

One video captured a small scuffle that happened between readied riot police and mourners as they waited for the hearse to arrive at Gyeongbok Palace. Police presence had been increased in anticipation of the large crowds to gather in the streets, especially considering the tense emotions running during this time (above the white paper saying "Lee Myung-bak, son of a bitch," there's another piece of white paper that says, "I'll live long so that I can see the day Lee Myung-bak dies, and pass out rice cakes," roughly equivalent of saying they'll dance on his grave, since you pass out rice cake to your friends and neighbors when celebrating a joyous occassion). The service, held at Gyeongbok Palace, was a mix Confucian, Christian and Buddhist (slideshow) last rites and poets, family and politicans gathered. President Lee Myung-bak was heckled at one point by opposition lawmaker Baek Won-woo who demanded that Lee apologize for "political revenge" (you can hear him around starting around 00:21, as Lee Myung-bak approaches with his wife). Reports stated that as bodyguards approached Baek to escort him out, some of the people in attendance demanded that nobody lay a hand on him and that they let him go, which further disrupted the funeral.

After the funeral, the hearse made its way back towards Bongha, where Roh is to be cremated, but the crowds that gathered managed to clogged the streets either holding yellow balloons or yellow paper hats made especially for the occassion and the car moved at a snail's pace through Seoul. People followed the hearse and some had to be pulled out of the way of the car as people cried, "You can't go like this".
posted by kkokkodalk at 12:01 PM on May 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Great post.

As I've said before, my knowledge of Korea comes exclusively from that country's wonderful cinema, but if that country is anything to go by, their politics are so alien from those of us in the west as to be almost beyond belief.

A couple of recent films I've been quite taken with have had political themes.

GoGo 70, a movie in which the Korean state decides to stamp out degenerate rock and roll -- apparently based on the true story of a Korean soul band who were the victim of state paranoia about youth culture in the 1970's.

The First Amendment of Korea
is a movie in which one of Korea's huge sex working population gets tired of being a victim and decides to run for political office.

Both of them are feelgood films, popular romantic comedies -- the kind of thing that if they were made in the UK or the USA would be popular, disposable trash, but as with so many Korean films, they invariably have serious themes about the corrupt nature of their politicians -- all of whom seem to have gangs of thugs who enforce their will and contribute their campaign funds if the movies are anything to go by.

One of the things that I have read is that when partition came, the South was really the stronghold of the rich landowners who had collaborated with the Japanese colonists. Is the Korean politician/gangster link something that they've learned from Japanese politicians who've traditionally also maintained links with yakuza type gangs? Or is it all just a fiction from the movies? I've no way of knowing?

(The other dominant theme in Korean cinema is how their heart is broken over partition of the country, and how everyone years for re-unification. Which appears to be a move away from earlier propaganda about how the evil North want to kill the democratic south in their sleep.)

I do wonder though, if it's because the Korean people have been prevented from telling their stories in an honest and open fashion for so long that we're been getting this enormous outburst of creativity in their film industry over the last 10 - 15 years?

And while I'm on the subject -- what's the story with all those tents that seem to pop up and serve as bars or restaurants all over the place? Are they licensed? Permanent structures? What's to stop somebody robbing the place at night when the owner is asleep?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:59 AM on May 30, 2009

Can anyone recommend a good, accessible modern history of Korea? I really wish I knew more about the place.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:06 AM on May 30, 2009

In the thread a couple of days ago, bardic and I mentioned Korea's Place in The Sun, by Bruce Cumings. As discussed, I recommend taking some of his more DPRK-friendly commentary with a grain of salt or two, though. He misquotes Mel Brooks on p. 75 of the new edition, and to me, well, that's just unforgiveable! Heh.

Better written and more accessible, if less scholarly-y in my opinion, is Michael Breen's The Koreans.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:22 AM on May 30, 2009

Peter McDermott: I don't know if I'd say that there's been a creative outburst in Korean film just in the last 10-15 years because it's probably more of a mix of historical circumstances and how the attention span of the not Korean film market works. There's been plenty of interesting films in Korean history, but yea, it's sort of an industry, that like a lot of things in Korea, was interrupted by the Korean War, and it did have to deal with a lot of historical and culture happenings, but what film industry isn't influenced by its surrounding culture and history.

And the way the foreign film market has been interested in Korean movies also plays a part. Not that Korean films haven't made the international film festival rounds and such, but earlier, say maybe like up until the 90s, you could tell that the foreign audience interested in Korean films were more interested in folks like Im Kwon Taek and Korean films that dealt specifically with very "Korean-y" or dealing with easily accessible feelings and ideas in films that critics could point to and say "yea, you can see the affects of the war here" or "oh this is so Korean!", making it arthouse by virtue of its foreignness. Not to say that films like "The Surrogate Woman" or "Seopyonjae" weren't interesting and great Korean movies, but they're not exactly well-known in the international markets outside of people who are of art-house foreign film watching type. I mean, what about "JSA"? Again, got film fest cred and play, but not watched by a lot of folks which is pretty funny when you know it's directed by American film fan darling Park Chan-wook. So certainly, I'd agree that nowadays that there's a heightened mainstream interest in certain Korean films, but I wouldn't say its indicative of a creative outburst, it's more an outburst in response to these films with a specific characteristic. It just makes it look like only recently there's been all these crazy creative movies coming out, but if you've watched Korean films as a whole, it's a different impression. Even as an expat, unless you speak the language, there's no way for you to watch these Korean language films or have all that must interest in the marketing or availability so people end up hearing secondhand and filtered about some movies from their movie news source of choice.

Anyway, I had a whole other long response about Korean organized crime, but it already looks like I'm moderating my own thread as it is already, so I'll wait until some more people talk or something.
posted by kkokkodalk at 8:39 AM on May 30, 2009

Strongly third the recommendation of Bruce Cumings' books. Nine thumbs down on the Breen.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:25 AM on May 30, 2009

Nine thumbs down on the Breen.

I'm curious as to why, Joseph.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:33 PM on May 30, 2009

kkokkodalk: Anyway, I had a whole other long response about Korean organized crime, but it already looks like I'm moderating my own thread as it is already, so I'll wait until some more people talk or something.

No, please, go ahead. All this is fascinating.

Here's an added question. It seems to me that a lot of this has to do with matters still unsettled from the time of military rule. Am I reading that right?
posted by Kattullus at 9:39 PM on May 30, 2009

"I'm only going to say this once, so listen well. My dream is that one day our republic makes the best damn sweets on the peninsula. Got it?

Until then, all I can do is dream about these Choco Pies."

No, please, go ahead. All this is fascinating.


I did a post about pansori that featured Seopyeonje here a little while ago. Since posting that, I've also watched Chunhyang, Beyond The Years (not as strong as Seopyeonje) and Lineage of the Voice -- unquestionably one of the best documentaries I've ever seen.

But I'm a big Im Kwon-taek fan. I also loved The General's Son, The Taeback Mountains and Chang.

Thanks for the book recs, stavros. I'm on my way to Amazon right now.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:31 AM on May 31, 2009

It just makes it look like only recently there's been all these crazy creative movies coming out, but if you've watched Korean films as a whole, it's a different impression.

I'd also like to say that although I watch the arthouse stuff, it was actually The Host that turned me on to Korean cinema, and I do watch the output as a whole. Everything from the great crime films to the sappy melodramas, the historical dramas and the dumb teen romantic comedies.

But it may be that I've just watched the best of the last 20 years over a two year period, thereby making me believe that it's all better than it is. Perhaps if you did that with British or American films, you'd feel the same way?

But while JSA might not have made the mass global market, I don't know anybody who hasn't watched The Host or My Sassy Girl and loved it to death.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:43 AM on May 31, 2009

PeterMcDermott: But that's sort of my point. The sudden spotlight on specific films like The Host and Park Chan-wook films is definitely turning on a more mainstream foreign audience to Korean films in general. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just saying that's what's basically happened. For people who got turned onto Korean films thanks to watching My Sassy Girl, etc., awesome that's great. I'm just disagreeing with the use of the word "creative," because certainly there's been a type of outburst since films can follow trends as influenced by society or history or what have you, but I'd say it's more a stylistic or storytelling shift, however I've just always felt like Korean movies on a whole have had a unique characteristic that those movies you mention build on. The type of comedy, the type of historical dramas, the type of action, what have you. For example, you mention My Sassy Girl, that's more an example of Korea as a country tied strongly to the Internet. The original My Sassy Girl, or in the Korean "Yeopkijuk in Geunyu" stories were web blog entries/stories written by a guy about his "yeopkijuk," or "radical," "weird" girlfriend. So a) we're talking web-based stories, b) "yeopki" was a whole Korean internet meme/trend along with the whole "a haeng haeng" movement. Describing things as radical and weird, sites dealing with the radical and weird, and it was a descriptor that stuck because of that. It got bundled into a book and he got a movie deal. So does that really make this movie part of a creative ouburst? maybe, but it's more like a result of unique Korean cultural development. Back then it was a big deal, but nowadays? There's been a (contreversially infamous) "Internet" author already in the 90s (think the kind of uproar if a livejournal fanfic writer's writings were bundled into a book, internet acronyms and all). Popular webcomics are being made into TV dramas as well as movies.
posted by kkokkodalk at 12:42 PM on May 31, 2009

There's another good obituary on Roh Moo Hyun at Ask a Korean.
posted by ignignokt at 2:56 PM on May 31, 2009

I'm just disagreeing with the use of the word "creative," because certainly there's been a type of outburst since films can follow trends as influenced by society or history or what have you, but I'd say it's more a stylistic or storytelling shift, however I've just always felt like Korean movies on a whole have had a unique characteristic that those movies you mention build on.

OK, this makes sense to me. I can definitely see this in relation to some of the older Korean films that I've watched.

But if you compare Korean cinema to say, the rest of the Asian market -- the Hong Kong studios are pretty well dying on their feet. It's rare that I watch a Japanese movie that doesn't look like it's been made for TV, shot on videotape, lousy lighting, etc.

Whereas Korea seems to have come out of nowhere (I know that that can't be true, but it's how it looks from outside), to be making all these movies that -- though there is a sort of quirky twist to many of them, their foundation is that they're all based on really strong stories -- but they've also got great production values. They look like they were shot in Hollywood on 35mm film. And regardless of how they're doing in Western markets, they seem to be tearing the Asian markets up, and really dominating the much older industries of places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, etc.

And part of that seems to be that there's a much younger, fresher sensibility at work in Korean cinema -- which I think is why I used the term burst of creativity. I do see what you mean about it being part of a larger Korean storytelling tradition -- but movies like My Sassy Girl and Daesepo Naughty Girls show a relationship with the internet that's genuinely organic, rather than a bolted on gimmick, which is how the old men of Hollywood have generally tended to treat such things. (See, for example, the Sandra Bullock movie, The Net.)

Perhaps if we're going to discuss this any further -- and I'd be really grateful for the opportunity to do so, because I don't actually know anyone else who watches Korean films, so I feel like I'm in something of a vaccuum here -- we should do so in memail, rather than continuing to derail the thread with this off-topic discussion?

MeMailed as well as posted here.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:03 AM on June 2, 2009

Carry on here, would be my vote, if you're going to carry on. I don't know or like Korean movies well enough to comment intelligently, but I'm interested, at least.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:41 AM on June 2, 2009

I'd urge you to give them another shot, stavros. By instinct, I'm not an arthouse cinema person at all. There's nothing I hate more than a boring French film, or an American indy that's so far up it's own arse that nobody but the director and the director's mum would want to watch it. But Korean cinema isn't that way at all.

Firstly, it's almost always hugely popular by instinct. Even the independent stuff tends to be aimed at a wide popular audience. One of the things that you might take as a weakness or a strength is that they have a tendency to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their movies -- so they almost always cross multiple genres at the same time. A crime film will always have comedy and romance and melodrama aspects.

There's an earthiness about them that's very rare in Western cinema. People are always fucking or taking a shit -- and can so many people fall in love with hookers in real life the way they do in Korean movies?

I presume he's as big a star within Korea as he is outside, but everything that Song Kang Ho is in is pretty awesome. Apart from The Day a Pig Fell Into A Well, which sucked. But The Host, JSA, Memories of Murder, The Presidents Barber and The Foul King were all wonderful movies. I've yet to watch The Quiet Family, but it was sufficiently interesting that Japanese director, Takashi Miike remade it as The Happiness of the Katakuris.

The only stuff I don't really watch are the horror movies, but that's because I don't really like horror movies. I can't suspend my disbelief when I watch them. But people who care about them reckon that the Koreans are turning out some of the best horror films in the world at the moment too.

I got sucked into the films knowing and caring nothing at all about Korea. It was the strength of the stories that kept me watching them, and these days, I rarely watch anything else.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:30 AM on June 3, 2009

« Older ...I didn't actually read the link...   |   Let's pull that cop over for speeding Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments