The end of an era passes with Roh

192_7[Column] The end of an era passes with Roh

Kim Sang-bong, Professor of Philosophy, Chonnam National University

When I first heard the news that he had thrown himself off a cliff in the mountains behind the village, I knew that an era had come to end. Former President Roh represented our era. No one else but him could have thrown himself so fiercely into an era and lived a life that was one with it. Were the nobility he demonstrated and the limitations he could never overcome not also the nobility and limitations of our era? And was his tragic end not also an era losing its way and falling from a cliff?

Roh Moo-hyun was a man called forth by an era where the guns were loaded in the 1979 Busan-Masan uprisings and fired during the 1980 Gwangju uprising, where a frenzied anger at all that was unjust shot forward like a bullet to the streets. He first set foot in history in what became known as the “Burim incident” that took place the year after Gwangju uprising, as a lawyer defending university students of a book club named Burim in Busan who had been arrested, tortured and battered. A fervent indignation at injustice and genuine sympathy for the suffering of others called this worry-free tax attorney onto the thorny road of history.

Afterwards, Roh was one of the few who would always put his entire existence on the line passionately answering the call whenever history summoned him. That passion moved us, and it ultimately drove him into the position of supreme power in this country. He was a source of pride for us not only because he was an honorable man, but also because he represented the surging nobility our generation was capable of demonstrating.

When he was elected president, I was able to believe that history was taking a step forward. However, it only went so far. Five years later, when he left the Cheong Wa Dae (the presidential office in South Korea or Blue House) having foisted onto the people the burden of the South Korea-United States free trade agreement, I did not have the energy any more to be disappointed and angry with him, though when I saw him building a big house to move into in his hometown, I did wonder for a moment where he got the money to pay for the construction costs.

Why, then, did I feel so ashamed of being alive when I heard that he had leapt from a cliff behind his home? He had thrown himself to his death, so why am I still living this miserable existence? His era was mine as well, his failures are my failures. Why am I sticking around here after he has taken off?

Whether or not I agree with what he did, he was passionate. For example, I felt deeply frustrated and disappointed when he said that all the power had gone over from the Cheong Wa Dae to the market, but when you think about it, it was not the limitation of an individual but of an era. In an era when capital became absolute, many people changed sides in the face of such limitations or tried to conceal one’s own limitations with the power of words, but he constantly ran up against the limitations in his own way and was ultimately thwarted. Since he was an era in himself, it is not at all strange that the frustration of an era would come upon him as a fatal blow. That said, compared to a once-beloved novelist who peddled nothing less than Gwangju in his bid for a Nobel Peace Prize, Roh Moo-hyun was the one who chose clean destruction over living a miserable and mean life restrained by insult and contempt, proving with his very body that while our era may have been a failed one, it was at least not a cowardly one.

Just as our era began out of the deaths in Gwangju that May, all new eras are conceived from death. A man who should not die has died, and before long the goddess of fortune will visit us to collect the price of his blood. She will judge those who drove him to his death, and us as well, with the same strict ethical standards. We must be cleanse ourselves in order to prepare for that judgment and for history to be able to reform itself.

Take care, my dear friend, whom I hated so because my love was fierce. I cry tears for your departed spirit that I have held back for so long. You have died for me, and so you will remain alive forever in my heart.


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