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My Tribute to Roh Moo-hyun
Roh's tragic death recalls the suicide of a former French PM 16 years ago for similar reasons
Pierre Joo (pierre_joo)     Print Article 
Published 2009-05-25 11:46 (KST)   
My one and only encounter with Roh Moo-hyun was in the winter of 2004 during his official visit to France. Roh had spent one evening with some members of the Korean community in Paris. There were many topics to talk about, especially on the business side, with the recent launch of the KTX based on the French bullet train technology, or the announcement of LG Electronics to invest in an R&D center in France.

Yet Roh took some time to improvise his thoughts on why he felt close to France. Because for him, France championed the rule of law over the rule of "survival of the fittest": rule of law between nations today, as France was a major advocate of multilateralism and the United Nations, and rule of law between people 220 years ago with the French revolution.

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I had appreciated Roh since I came to know him around his successful run for the presidency. But after personally experiencing his casualness, and genuine commitment for values he believed in and that I shared, I could understand why he inspired entire generations of Koreans. Later in early 2009, I didn't know what to think when hearing news on corruption scandals he was allegedly linked to: judges would decide whether he was guilty of any wrongdoings, but I couldn't help feel some frustration and disappointment.

On the morning of May 23, when I learned that Roh committed suicide and reflected on the circumstances of his tragic death, I remembered what happened in France 16 years ago.

On May 1, 1993, former Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy shot himself in the head by a canal in his longtime political rural homeland of the center of France. A year earlier, Francois Mitterrand had appointed him Prime Minister to lead France in one of the toughest economic period of that decade. A period that needed swift and unpopular measures. Beregovoy had taken them, thus helping to put France back on track, but could not avoid a terrible defeat at the next nation-wide elections for his Socialist party, who had been in command for the past 6 years. Power was handed over to the right, Beregovoy stepped down and retreated to his homeland.

As head of the government, Beregovoy felt deeply responsible for his party's defeat, but what hurt him deepest was the attacks of the media against what he valued most as a State servant: ethics and probity in the conduct of his private and public life. The latest campaign had put Beregovoy's life under scrutiny, especially because of a free-of-interest $170,000 private loan for the purchase of an apartment in Paris. The deal was legal, but the loaner turned out to be a corrupt businessman, giving the media reasons for relentless subjects of suspicion.

French politics was not free of corrupt behaviour, especially at that time, with no strict rules for the financing of political parties. Yet Beregovoy was not like any other politician. He came from a modest background, couldn't even afford high school and started working as a blue collar for the French railroad company, then joined the resistance during world war two. His political career started out as a grassroots militant for the socialist party. He then climbed every step to the top job thanks to his hard work and dedication. Suspecting him of corrupt behaviour was denying the man's core value, which proved fatal. Later investigations would find Beregovoy clean of any wrongdoings.

At his funeral, Francois Mitterrand, the president of France, gave one of his most powerful and personal speeches as tribute to his lost friend and lifetime political companion, and as warning to the dangerous path France was taking:

"No reason in this world can justify that the honor of a man and ultimately his life were thrown to dogs. His accusers have failed two fundamental laws of our Republic: to protect the dignity and liberty of each and every one of us."

By "dogs," Mitterrand meant the media. I remember watching him saying those harsh words with a voice shaking with emotion. Was Mitterrand overreacting? As a young student interested in the political life of my country, I also read critics of the President, arguing for the media's duty to uncover untold stories. I wasn't sure who was right.

Sixteen years later, I can't help but notice the similarities between Beregovoy and Roh's tragic fate. I am still unsure how much responsibility the French media have to bear in Beregovoy's death, but I do understand this thing that Mitterrand was trying to warn us against: this thing happened 16 years later in a small village in South Korea, thousands of miles away from Nievres.

We can all fail to be up to our core values. Politicians too, but their failure have the power to deceive citizens, as they have a moral obligation for exemplary behavior. Roh's suicide is not an indication that he had indeed discarded his lifetime political values. Future will tell. His tragic act means that, like Beregovoy, he was more sensitive to the values of ethics and demanding to himself than many politicians.

©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Pierre Joo

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