What President Roh’s Death Tell Us about South Korea

It is hard to not be astonished at the sheer scale of the South Korean grief over the death of former president Roh Moo-Hyun. TV networks estimated some 5 million people paid their respects publicly – at his home, in Busan, or in Seoul – in the last week. That is over 10% of the population. The western press response has been confusion and lack of coverage; westerners don’t really know quite what to make of it. Our chief executives pass away all the time, and even though it was a suicide, I can’t imagine anything like this social outburst happening in the West. Yet it was the top new here all last week, despite another NK nuclear blast. It was on the news all day long, and the country basically shut down on Friday for the funeral.

Something important has been unleashed, but even Koreans don’t really know, as the opposition is already trying to ride the wave as a political tool. So here are a few preliminary thoughts:

1. The FT fingered the most important insights. The connections between business and government at the top in SK are a textbook example of the problems new or transitional democracies confront in managing the economy, especially a growing one. One president after another in Korea has been investigated, usually with good cause. That Roh lamentably killed himself does not invalidate the possibility that he was corrupted by the kickbacks common in the revolving door between Korea’s political and economic elites. Business-family oligarchs corrupting politics is common practice in Asia. Growth plus elitist politics quickly breeds an informal corporatist system whereby ‘national champions’ – selected not for their prowess but their crony connections – receive subsidies and other preferential access to the budget in exchange for all sorts of election support and other sleaze. They become ‘too big to fail’ – with all the terrible inefficiencies that come with such a privileged status – and their success is easily frequently identified with that of the country. What is good for Samsung is good for Korea is still a common mindset, and this gives all sorts of leeway to the chaebol to escape market punishment by dumping costs on taxpayers. The IMF crisis helped reduce concentrated corporate power in Korea, but Koreans usually bristle when I say the crisis was good for their political economy in the medium- and long-term.

2. SK however should be congratulated for the diligence with which it investigates this corruption. Common practice of course is to sweep this stuff under the rug and pass of the costs to taxpayers. Weakly organized interests distant from power – ie, the voters – usually suffer while ensconced, politically influential interests set the national budget or business regulations. Think of Indonesia under Suharto, or China or Russia today. The IMF crisis revealed to Koreans the price of corrupt oligarchic corporatism, and these investigations, as nasty and political as they may become, at least suggest Koreans want accountability and take it seriously. This is another step in Korea’s democratization, and a necessary one. It is an awful irony on top of an awful irony that Roh stood for such accountability, then came under the light himself, and now might still be alive if the government was not so diligent in pursuing corruption.

3. The size of the outpouring of grief is the bigger story than Roh’s death itself. As I watched millions of Koreans publicly crying, even shrieking, I was increasingly reminded of the outpouring over Princess Diana. The grief process itself was a bigger story than the death. In the case of Diana, I must say it was embarrassing at first, but then increasingly disturbing. Her death was tragic of course, but a relic of a corrupt monarchy who enjoyed an unearned lifestyle of skiing and affairs enjoyed a mawkish sentimentality that suggested a shallow, celebrity-obsessed culture. There was a History Channel special top 100 people of the millennium two years later. Viewers could vote for candidates, and Diana beat out Stalin.

In Roh’s case the grief says two things. First, Koreans know how corrupt their politics is and don’t like it. That is a huge plus. That insures ongoing democratization – of great importance here in East Asia especially. The explosion of grief suggest there is a strong grassroots desire for better, cleaner governance. Koreans want their democracy to be vibrant; NK and China will take note, and that is good. By contrast, the grief over Diana was disturbing, because it suggested an unhealthy celebrity obsession, especially over royalty in a democracy.

Second, Koreans genuinely want their politics to be more open to popular participation and social mobility. Roh represented both of these trends, whereas President Lee seems to be drifting the other way. SK has a political culture dominated by a local version of French enarques. Pareto’s circulating elites are the Korean revolving door between business and politics – particularly the weak independence of Korea’s parties from the state. Roh had none of the usual enarque-style connections in the political class, and his education and career suggested that regular Koreans could aspire to the presidency. My students always giggle about Governor Schwarzenegger, and I have mixed feelings myself on his career track to such high office. But people like him or Jesse Ventura show how open the US political system is, and how social mobility is real in the US. The grief over Roh suggests Koreans want this too.

4. Finally, the outpouring reflects a feudalist, pre-modern tendency to see leaders as ‘fathers of the nation’ – an expression I have heard a few times about Roh this past week. This will fade as Korea has more and more presidents over time. Time – specifically more presidents over more time – will make the president’s office more institutional and less personalized. This too will be healthy, as the last thing Asia and developing states generally need is such ‘national fathers.’ That mindset gives you the identification of the body politic with one man – so obvious in NK, Suharto’s Indonesia, or China under Mao.

1 thought on “What President Roh’s Death Tell Us about South Korea

  1. Pingback: Why do Asian Legislators Punch Each Other? « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

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