People mourn the passing of Roh Hoe-chan
On July 23, Justice Party lawmaker Roh Hoe-chan took his life. The death of this lawmaker who had spent his entire life fighting the military dictatorship and advocating the spread of progressive values is saddening and heartbreaking for many in South Korea. The anguish is multiplied by the questions of what could have brought a man who was a symbol of progressive politics and who had played a key role in its popularization to end his life and whether he had been left with no other choice.
It’s undeniable that Roh played a major role in enabling progressive parties to gain popular support and put down their roots in South Korean politics. In several recent public opinion polls, the Justice Party’s approval rating has surpassed 10 percent, bringing it close to the level of the Liberty Korea Party, the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, with 112 seats.
To be sure, there is no telling how long this trend will continue. But considering that progressive parties started planting seeds in Korean politics in the 1990s – when the country was a wasteland for the progressives, who barely had one percent of popular support – this is obviously a remarkable amount of growth.
Roh was always at the heart of those efforts. “When we were all dejected by my abysmal showing, with 1.9 percent of the popular vote, as a progressive candidate in the 1997 presidential election, it was Roh Hoe-chan who got us back on our feet to establish a progressive party [the Democratic Labor Party],” recalled Kwon Yeong-gil, former leader of the Democratic Labor Party.
When Roh first entered the National Assembly as a proportional representative for the Democratic Labor Party in 2004, he was one of just a few lawmakers who did not shy away from a fight not only with political enemies but also with the public prosecutors and the chaebols. An anecdote that gets at the heart of the Roh Hoe-chan brand of politics was when he went public with the names of seven prosecutors who had taken bribes from Samsung, resulting in him losing his seat in the National Assembly for violating the Protection of Communications Secrets Act.
That makes it even more bewildering and unbelievable that he is suddenly gone. This was a man who did not show a shadow of fear while fighting against powerful forces, and what makes this even more heartrending is how easily we can imagine how he must have writhed with anguish and regret in the bonds of illegal campaign funds in which he had been entangled.
“I received two payments totaling 40 million won [US$35,300] from the Economic Coevolution Group in Mar. 2016. They didn’t ask me for any favors, nor did I promise to do anything in return,” Roh said in his suicide note.
“What I found out later was that since this was a voluntary donation by multiple people, I was supposed to follow the standard procedures for donations. But I didn’t do so. That was a stupid choice and a shameful decision,” Roh wrote as he apologized to the members of the Justice Party.
There’s little point now in fathoming the depth of his guilt or how sorry he felt to his colleagues in the Justice Party. But if anyone is without blame, let them throw the first stone at Roh. The fact that a man who had prided himself in being the cleanest and most principled of all politicians could be ensnared by illegality is the sad fact of South Korean politics; on an individual level, Roh was beyond reproach.
Furthermore, when we consider that politicians who are guilty of corruption on a much larger scale are strutting around Yeouido and brazenly claiming their innocence, it would be easy to ask what’s such a big deal about a few tens of millions of won before an election – if not for Roh’s heartrending political innocence.
The last message that Roh sent before his death was to congratulate the KTX train attendants for being reinstated to their positions after a struggle of 12 years. “I take the blame for all the failings,” he wrote in his suicide note, while asking the public to “continue supporting the Justice Party.” We hope that this man who dedicated himself to the labor movement and to the cause of progressive politics has at last found peace.
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