Back To Top

[Kim Myong-sik] Ghost of Roh Moo-hyun lurks in 2018 Korea

Political revenge or establishment of justice? If the ongoing investigation of those people in power a decade ago is to be determined an act of political revenge, the natural question is what they had done to call for it.

Former President Roh Moo-hyun was under investigation in connection with bribery charges involving family members in 2009 when he took his own life. He was questioned for 10 hours on April 30 in the Seoul Prosecutors’ Office, traveling 1,000 kilometers from his country home. He was scheduled to be summoned again late in May. On the morning of May 23, he walked up a hill behind his home and leaped 30 meters to his death as his bodyguard had been sent on an errand.

He left a note in his computer: “I owed too much to too many people. They suffer much pain because of me and will suffer a lot in the future. I will be little more than a burden to others for the rest of my life. I cannot do anything because of poor health, not even to read or write.

“Don’t be sad too much. Life and death both are just pieces of nature. Don’t feel sorry for me, or blame anybody. This is fate. Cremate my body and place a small tombstone in a place near home. This was in my mind for a long time.”

The investigation began a year after Lee Myung-bak was inaugurated as president, and was directed not to the former president himself but to some of his close aides, his wife and daughter on suspicion of illegal transfer of money between them. It was alleged that cash in excess of $1 million was used in the purchase of an apartment in New York City for Roh’s married daughter. The accused claimed it was borrowed.

Media representatives camped around Roh’s home in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province, on the southeastern coast while prosecutors in Seoul made daily briefings for reporters to inform them of the progress of the investigation. A headline story, without clear attribution, had it that Roh’s wife threw away two luxury watches that she had received from Roh’s businessman friend into a rice paddy.

Nine years later, law enforcement officers in charge of the investigation of “jeokpye,” or past wrongdoings (under previous administrations), disseminated the information that the luxury watch episode was released to the press by agents of the National Intelligence Service. It was part of a smear campaign against the past power aimed to turn public attention away from many troubles Lee then faced.

Moon Jae-in, the last chief of staff for Roh in the Blue House, helped the retired president resettle in Bongha village of Gimhae and managed affairs before and after the death of the leader he respected. As the prosecution, restructured after Moon’s inauguration in May last year, is investigating the misdeeds of the Park Geun-hye administration, President Moon ordered each major governmental agency to form a “task force” to uncover “jeokpye” dating back 10 years.

It appears the goal of the law enforcement apparatus under President Moon is to bring former President Lee Myung-bak to criminal prosecution for his role in the cyberspace campaign in 2012 to support Park Geun-hye and hurt then-opposition candidate Moon, hiring civilian and military personnel. Another possible charge is Lee’s creation of a slush fund through the operation of a private company named DAS.

Several people in the management of DAS, an auto accessories maker, have been summoned to be questioned about the former president’s relations with the company. As prosecutors find it hard to link the former president to the NIS’ and the military intelligence command’s internet campaigns, they seem to be focusing on the DAS slush fund allegedly amounting to 12 billion won ($11.3 million). An independent counsel had concluded in 2008 that Lee had no share in the company.

If it is the ordinary law enforcement procedure to establish justice in the top echelon of society, two conditions should be met. One is the filing of complaints by the victim or victims of the alleged criminal act and the other is the actual collection of evidence or the securing of witness providing reasonably sufficient grounds for the charges. If no such conditions are met, there is a reasonable ground to suspect political revenge.

Unfortunately, I had no chance to meet Roh Moo-hyun in person, but I believe he was a great man. I lost my job as the board chairman of a government-affiliated organization when Roh’s new administration abolished the position. Yet, I had high expectations of his liberal government that championed balanced regional development, protection of human rights and fair distribution of wealth.

He pursued a departure from authoritarianism, proved himself to be a man of principles, denied political expediency, but knew how to accept reality, especially in diplomacy. He chose what he thought was right though it could bring his approval rate down and lose ballots in elections. During a press conference, answering a Japanese reporter, he surprised the Korean side as he referred to the Dokdo Islets in the East Sea as Takeshima, as the Japanese do. But he actually said, “Takeshima is out of question.”

His five years as president was by no means a success. The National Assembly voted for his impeachment for breaching the obligation of political neutrality, but the Constitutional Court saved him. That same top court then denied his signature policy of moving the capital city to the central region, based on the novel idea of “customary constitution.” The media in general was hostile to Roh, who was basically a maverick figure.

I presume that if Roh appears in President Moon’s dreams, Roh as the mentor would advise his protege against taking political revenge on anyone breathing now because simply it is not his style. Perhaps, he also would not like the way the two public broadcasting stations KBS and MBC are reforming their managements with the forceful ouster of pro-opposition board members.

If some in the Moon camp believe that Lee pressed for the investigation of Roh and his family to escape from his own troubles, would Roh himself agree? As he indicated in his last note, he chose death because he loved his family. The former president might quote Mahatma Gandhi for his followers: “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.”

By Kim Myong-sik

Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He once served as board chairman of the Korea International Broadcasting Foundation, which operates Arirang TV. – Ed.
Korea Herald Youtube