Roh Moo-hyun was the 16th president of the Republic of Korea. In Korea, they count presidents differently than we do in America. They count each term as a separate presidency. In the USA, he would be the ninth president since the founding of the Republic of Korea.
Roh came from the same province from which I am writing these words, namely South Gyeongsang Province. He came from pretty ordinary circumstances. His family was poor, like so many others in Korea of that time. I think it is hard for my students to appreciate just how poor their country was during the early days of the Republic of Korea. He was born in 1948 in Bongha-maeul, a small village which is now a part of Gimhae, a large city just outside of Busan. He was not able to go to university. Nevertheless, he studied hard on his own and passed the very difficult bar exams. He passed them so well that he was invited to become a judge. He became a judge in Daejeon and then returned to the Busan area where he went into private practice as an attorney.
He was a Catholic, though basically in name only. When he died, his funeral included Buddhist rites and his ashes were kept at a temple near his home until his tomb was completed. He had described himself as basically an agnostic. His mentor, former president Kim Dae Jung was a famously devout Catholic. From what I have heard, President Kim was a daily communicant, though I’m not sure about that. (President Kim’s funeral service was held at Myeong-dong Cathedral in Seoul.)
Roh made a name for himself defending democracy activists during the period of the Chun Doo Hwan military dictatorship. From 1961 until 1993, South Korea was lead by a series of generals. Park Chung-hee came to power in coup. He was assassinated in 1979, succeeded by his prime minister Choi Kyu-hah. Not long afterwards, President Choi would be pushed aside in a coup lead by Maj. Gen. Chun Doo-hwan. Chun’s successor, former general Roh Tae-woo was democratically elected, but it took until 1993 for a civilian to take office.
Roh was elected president in 2003. He was certainly one of the more colourful characters to have filled the office of President of the Republic of Korea. Condoleeza Rice described him as “erratic”. His behaviour caused no little concern in Washington. President Obama has a much easier working relationship with his successor. However, given that the political pendulum is likely to swing leftwards yet again in Korea, who knows what may happen? He was also impeached, though the Constitutional Court would later acquit him. In Korea, when a president is impeached, he is temporarily removed from office and the prime minister serves as acting president. He was a champion of Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” and went to Pyeongyang to meet with Kim Jong-il. In the interests of honesty, I have to say that I am very much a sceptic of Kim and Roh’s Sunshine Policy, though there are other things Roh championed which I am not sceptical of. Roh’s desire to give the provinces and rural communities more of a voice in the decision making process was a good one. His desire to end the religionalism which has poisoned Korean politics for so long was also praiseworthy. For so long, everything has been tightly centralised from Seoul. Under Park and Chun, the provincial governments were, at best, irrelevant. During the Roh years, the provincial capitals were in some cases moved to smaller towns and the capital cities of the provinces made self-governing metropolitan cities. He had a plan to move the capital of Korean from Seoul to a new city currently under construction, though those plans were thwarted by a Constitutional Court ruling that moving the capital from Seoul is unconstitutional. While the provinces do not have the same degree of autonomy as American states currently enjoy, although that autonomy is fading quickly, they enjoy more autonomy than they used to.
Here is the Presidential Birthplace itself. He was born to a family of farmers. The house is pretty typical for a farmers’ house of the time. Behind President Roh’s birthplace is a much larger house which he built for his retirement. President Roh was looking like he might just avoid the fate of all former Korean presidents and have a normal, dignified retirement. Unfortunately, the Prosecutor’s Office was investigating him and his family for corruption. Apparently, a businessman had paid for the living expenses of Roh’s children who were studying in the USA. Also, his brother, who was arrested by the police for influence peddling, had taken some bribes from Daewoo Engineering & Construction. Feeling trapped, he committed suicide by jumping off the cliffs near his home. The prosecutors have dropped further investigations into his family. Roh would return to his hometown in retirement. Far from living in an ivory tower, he was said to be quite approachable, living in that tiny village of 121 people. He was sometimes seen riding his bicycle through town, something of a change from former presidents, who tended to live in Seoul in heavily guarded residences. The New York Times had a piece on former president Roh in retirement. It’s well worth reading and can be accessed by clicking here.
From this plaza, you can see where former President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide. Halfway up the mountain is a Buddhist hermitage where his ashes were initially kept until his tomb was constructed.
The presidential tomb is located on this plaza. Here’s a place where visitors may burn incense.
I didn’t take any photos of the tomb, mostly because nobody else was and there were police guarding it. (People were taking photos of everything else, though.) It’s a large brown stone that simply reads 대통령 노무현, or President Roh Moo-hyun.
One of my big interests is modern Korean history. If any of you are in Korea and would like to visit President Roh’s home village, it’s pretty simple. Take the Busan Line 2 subway to Sasang Station and take exit 5. This will take to the Sasang Bus Terminal. Buy a ticket for Jinyeong and get off at Jinyeong Intercity Bus Terminal (진영시외버스터미날). Take bus 57 to Bongha Maeul (봉하마을). This will take you the presidential birthplace. Alternately, you can take a taxi from Jinyeong Station. It costs about 6,000 won. Tell the taxi driver to go to 대통령생가 (Dae Tong Ryeong Saengga).
Another presidential site, which I’ve covered in a previous post, is the former residence of Dr. Syngman Rhee. During the Korean War, the Republic of Korea government was actually run from Busan for a while. Busan is a place with a lot of lore from that period, which is something I very much like. The Busan Modern History Museum has some interesting stuff, as does the 40 Steps Memorial Hall.