On Friday, tens of thousands of South Koreans lined the streets at the funeral of their former president, Roh Moo-hyun.
Roh committed suicide by jumping from a cliff near his house in late May. His once-great reputation as an upstanding leader and fierce liberal had been tarnished of late, as he was engaged in a corruption scandal.
Soo-Mee Park is The Asia Foundation’s public affairs officer in Korea. She writes at the “In Asia” blog about experiencing the country’s shared grief.
Roh Moo-hyun’s Funeral
Standing in Gwanghwamun, the heart of downtown Seoul, amid the sea of sobbing mourners at the funeral of the former Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, a curious déjà vu struck me.
Out of nowhere, the scene in front of me overlapped with a black and white footage of the funeral of Park Chung Hee I had seen some years ago on a local history channel. For a moment, the connections seemed rather unclear. Then it hit me: there was something unusual to the public grief toward the deaths of these two men that somehow surpassed the loss of a political leader.
For years growing up in Korea, I always wondered why there was such hype surrounding Park’s glory in our history textbooks. True, his life was a little more dramatic than the others – the longest-serving president who led a revolutionary coup before he was assassinated by the head of his own intelligence service.
[...] Last week, the country observed a grim scene. Roh, an outspoken, and often militant, liberal, killed himself by jumping off a cliff near his retirement home. A month earlier, he had been called into the prosecutor’s office for an investigation over a bribery allegation. For days, the question remained in many of our minds: what does it take to push a man of his stature to the edge of a cliff?
As the hearse of Roh passed the streets of Seoul on Friday, sheer disbelief was palpable in the faces of many citizens. A group of men, some in business suits, climbed up to the roof of subway exits to watch the hearse passing. Riot police were everywhere, blocking the entry into the city square often used by local protesters for candlelight vigils, and fliers were sparsely posted on shop walls, some carrying anti-government slogans, others condolences for the loss of a man whose rhetoric on justice and hope was once so lively and refreshing that it even charmed young Korean voters who cared little about politics.
“Sorry we couldn’t protect you,” one flier on the wall read. “We were happy to have you as a president,” said another.
For many, Roh’s suicide was more than the loss of a political leader. Instead, his death seems to have resonated with a certain admission of defeat for the revolutionary values and lack of compassion for the poor and uneducated in Korean society that Roh, a human rights lawyer with no college degree, had once symbolized.
By late evening, after the funeral, the streets of downtown Seoul had turned into a state approaching anarchy. Men stood on the portable platform of a truck on an empty, blocked road and shouted anti-government slogans; protest songs were flowing out of a loudspeaker and soju (liquor) bottles were tumbling onto the streets. The restless mood was furthered by the cheerless glimpse of routine city life – street vendors walking around with their carts full of steamed corn, fishcakes and hot dogs, offering them to mourners.
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