28 May 2009

Funeral of ex-President

South Korea's Roh Moo-hyun that is. He committed suicide last week, and I got the news during my sightseeing in Toronto. Right now, the funeral live stream is being piped into my room, straight from the familiar grounds of Seoul's Gyeongbok Palace. (After all the months spent in Seoul and my frustration with the uneducated theocrats of Los Angeles, I now list Seoul as my hometown on Facebook, and sincerely do feel that way.) The funeral is being held as a "national funeral" appropriate for a former President, with invocations from all major South Korean religious traditions. (Roh was agnostic - something the Korean-Americans found unacceptable.)

During Roh's political career, there were too many scandals and verbal gaffes floating around - and Roh was an extremely unpopular figure. He wasn't too competent a leader either; his education never went beyond high school, and his bar license was obtained through self-study in the 1970s. The right hated him for his unchecked unconditional aids to North Korea, and the left hated him for backstabbing them through sending South Korean troops to Iraq and negotiating a free trade agreement with the US (the free trade agreement that's never mentioned in the US). Roh's unpopularity was a key contributing factor to the current presidency of far-right Lee Myung-bak (2MB). (I certainly do NOT like seeing him - especially as he entered the funeral grounds in his BMW.)

But now that Roh is gone, a more complex portrait of the man is emerging. During the 1987 democratic revolution that brought real democracy to South Korea, Roh was a key member of the pro-democracy movement in Busan. In 1988 he entered politics as a National Assemblyman, and took key part in prosecuting ex-Presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo (unrelated) for their 1979 military coup and 1980 civilian massacre. And when his ambitions turned presidential in 2002, he promised to take South Korean democracy into a new era and mentality. Of course, walking across the DMZ, then doing the most historic road trip ever in Korean history - a drive to Pyongyang - was noted by the entire world.

The legacy is complex. Roh was proof that power tends to corrupt even well-meaning individuals of modest backgrounds. (If power didn't corrupt, maybe those communist revolutions of the 20th Century may actually have succeeded, and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela wouldn't be such an a-hole either.) I am still well convinced that he did not offer much substance to the people he ruled. However, he did leave a legacy, and the South Korean democratic struggle cannot be discussed without Roh. In his death, that may be what Roh may leave the people of South Korea with - a continued call for democracy that keeps the power grab of the current government in check, and also ensures that 2MB will serve his subjects rather than US-based far-right special interests.

And bringing the focus back to the US, the fact that President Obama is not fulfilling his campaign promises - something angrily noted by many liberals including many of my friends - needs to be put into perspective. Obama must serve many different interests, including conservative nonwhite theocrats of California, the large defense contractors, and more. All those special interest demands will eventually corrupt even the best of his intentions, and unfortunately that is to be expected. I also don't want Obama to have sweeping powers to change things overnight either; a too-powerful President, even a "good" one, is always dangerous, as well demonstrated by W. I no longer consider myself an enthusiastic Obama supporter, and while he listens a bit more than W, I'll just put it at that, and keep pressuring for not only change from Obama himself, but from the American society at large. (Honestly, I find the ethnic theocracy of California to be hopeless... I need to leave. Next post will talk about that.)

I am more than happy to share my observations of South Korean society and politics with Americans and other good people of the world (I'm especially having great exchanges with other Americans with significant South Korean time under their belt - and we all agree that 2MB has been going too far), in hopes that all the nations involved will have better governments and societies in the long run.