The sky cried for several hours on the night of May 23, 2009. Surely this is a self-centered way of describing things, because in South Korea, where former president Roh Moo-Hyun had just committed suicide, it was morning and the weather was okay. But all of the details of that night—the way that the Korean radio blared on about the cliff and his suicide note, my parents’ disbelief, and the consoling “tap tap tap” of the rain on the window—hold so much more significance in retrospect. I did not know at that time that the person who had passed away would be my political idol.
Ever since that rainy night, Roh has become an obsession of sorts for me. Perhaps it is because he was the person who made my mother an excited and independent political actor in my eyes. For a girl who usually can’t remember anything, I hold an incredibly crisp memory of my mother declaring her intention to support Roh in 2002, against the conservative political tendencies of my father and her sisters. On slow nights, I often browse through old YouTube clips of Roh’s speeches and documentaries that have been produced since his death. I tear up when I replay inspirational moments from his speeches, and I laugh at viral videos that stitch his words together into satirical rap songs. To date, I have written over 70 pages of academic work on his election and his presidential tenure.
It would be inaccurate to say that I admire Roh for his political achievements. Even as a citizen of another country on the outside looking in, I know that his administration was largely seen as a failure to realize his idealistic campaign promises. Because he refused to make compromises for Korea’s deep-rooted establishment circles (the chaebol conglomerates, the prosecutors, the three main newspapers, etc.), he lacked the political backing that many before him had taken for granted. When he soundly finished his term in spite of the numerous impeachment campaigns that had been waged against him, he was hit by a prosecution campaign that vigorously sought to confirm his corruption charges. Regretting that he had “disappointed the people” he jumped to his death at the peak of this prosecution campaign.
Roh was an outsider to these elite circles to begin with. He grew up poor in a Busan village where even “the crows turn away because there is nothing to eat.” Given that he had almost foregone middle school because his parents could not afford the tuition, college was not even in question. Roh passed the national bar exam through self-study and later became a human rights lawyer who defended student protesters accused of being pro-communist. His foray into politics came in response to his rising profile in the Korean liberal circles. At the age of 55, he was elected president under his promise to work toward a “world in which human beings live.” “The Attorney,” a critically-acclaimed Korean movie, nostalgically reflects on the life of the self-made man.
So perhaps it was the general satisfaction of rooting for an underdog that campaigned and won against a top dog. Or perhaps my admiration for him comes as an apology for the fact that the public that had voted to elect him actually had not been ready or powerful enough to pick him up when he was pushed to the ground by the establishment. Either way, the way that I think about Roh’s legacy closely parallels the excitement that I feel (and many of my peers feel) about the rise of Bernie Sanders, America’s current icon of idealism. To me, this is both exciting and scary.
Our campus these days is a sea of “BERNIE” laptop stickers. The night of the debate, #feelthebern was the most prominent hashtag on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. This is exciting because it gives me hope that once again, an underdog like Bernie Sanders—disheveled hair, no necktie, no big backers, regarded as a long shot—could finish ahead of the top dogs. But because he could win, it’s also scary. Are we as a nation ready to protect a president who is brave enough to put “people before corporations” without ultimately bowing out and saying that he isn’t savvy enough to play the political game? Back home in New York City, I see this sense of disillusionment being waged against Mayor Bill de Blasio, who rose to his current office in a wave of post-Bloomberg liberal sentiment.
On May 29, 2009, six days after Roh’s death, over 500,000 people gathered for his public funeral in the plaza of Seoul’s City Hall. The short sound bites and videos from the afternoon give a good sense of the mood of the event: wails, shouts of anger against the prosecutors, and tearful words of regret. The duty of idealism’s supporter in any presidential election extends beyond achieving the sweetness of election victory. For those of us who are excited by Bernie Sanders’s rising profile as we edge into 2016, we must acknowledge that we have the extra homework of staying proactive and engaged as political participants even after the election. That is the way that we will avoid having to say a decade later: “We’re sorry we weren’t able to protect you.”
Jenny J. Choi ’16, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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