Last Saturday morning, former South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun committed suicide, jumping off a cliff behind his house. The news has left the country shaken. The mood at my school has been quite somber, with teachers talking about how much they cried over the weekend. Even our P.E. teacher, a nice young man, came in with his eyes all puffed up, saying “Something has to be done about this.”
The story behind Roh’s suicide is long and convoluted, and I’m not really the guy to explain it, since I don’t watch the news and I’m about as apolitical as they come (although I did send in an overseas absentee ballot for Obama, and I was proud to do it). But here’s what I understand in a nutshell: Roh and various family members have been under investigation for the last couple of months on charges that they unlawfully accepted money from certain businesspeople. Roh eventually confessed that his family had accepted the bribery money and issued a public apology (I’m not clear if he confessed to taking the money himself or if his family members, namely his wife and brother, accepted the money without his knowledge). The news was an especially big scandal, as Roh’s presidential platform was based around his image of anti-status quo and dedicated to removing the corruption that had characterized so many of his predecessors.
Roh was not a particularly popular President as I recall (he had a penchant for talking without thinking first, and my Dad thought his views were inherently “Communist”), and as I said, he did admit to the corruption charges. But as of now, his suicide has seemed to turn him into a martyr of sorts (I think there’s a cultural difference at play here, as I think Western people would be far more likely to conclude, “He did it because he was guilty” and leave it at that). Many people, including the aforementioned P.E. teacher and a couple of my students, believe that current President Lee Myung Bak basically “killed” Roh, presumably because of the harsh investigation that Roh was being placed under.
Again, I don’t know what to really to think about the whole situation. I don’t think suicide automatically erases any wrongs that you’ve committed like some people seem to be thinking. Still, you gotta feel for anyone that takes his own life (I used to think that suicide was a coward’s way out and a terrible crime against your loved ones, but now, I don’t know, I think depression is so powerful a disease that it leaves a person incapable of seeing or feeling anything but his or her pain). And Roh’s suicide letter–he had saved it on his computer for it to be found–was extremely moving and, well, presidential. I read it last Sunday as I was waiting for some take-out chicken for dinner. It read like this (my apologies for my rusty translation):
“I’ve placed a debt on too many people.
The pain that various people have had to face because of me is too great.
I can’t even imagine the pain that is still yet to come.
If I were to remain, it would only add to their burden.
Due to my failing health, I am unable to do anything.
I cannot read nor write.
Do not be too sad.
Aren’t life and death both pieces of nature?
Do not be sorry.
Do not hate anyone.
It is destiny.
And please only leave a very small marker near my house.
It’s a thought I’ve had for a long time.”
As I was reading this in the chicken restaurant, Seabear’s “I Sing, I Swim” was playing on my mp3 player, and a serendipitous lyric grabbed me: “Human skin, can be hard to live in.” I couldn’t have said it better, Seabear. Roh Moo Hyun, rest in peace.