Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Meaning of Roh Moo-Hyun

Roh Moo-hyun, with his suicide leap, has become South Korea’s most recent and arguably most spectacular post-presidential flameout. For every South Korean President since Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1988) and Roh Tae-woo (1988-1993), the military generals who eased South Korea into its contemporary democratic era, and/or their families and familiars have been subjected to criminal prosecution. In fact, Roh Moo-hyung’s death makes you wonder if all this isn’t part of the local political culture—the South Korean equivalent of the multi-million-dollar Presidential library that ex-Presidents hit on their campaign contributors for and the six-figure fees they charge for giving pep talk to Moonie conventions and other less reputable audiences, doesn’t it? (Japanese Prime Ministers mainly but not exclusively opt for a more modest goal—bequeathing their Diet seats to their offspring.)

Yes, but.

Actually, Chun through Roh 2 are the analog of the one-off warlords who are destined to give way to a more permanent regime in exchange for a moment of historical glory as short-lived difference-makers. They and their successors (up to Roh 2) remind more me of bridesmaids Nobunaga Oda and Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who briefly held sway at the end of the Sengoku Jidai, or War-States Period, only to pave the way to three centuries of uninterrupted rule by the Tokugawa Dynasty. Korean (and, more so, Chinese) history must be replete with such precedents. From this perspective, Roh’s suicide should be seen as the latest manifestation of the search by the Korean body politic for an enduring protocol of succession as a constitutional democracy.

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