Korea Kapers: Noh No More

May 25, 2009
Noh Moo-hyun

Noh Moo-hyun

Former president of the Republic of South Korea, Noh Moo-hyun*, seems to have taken the decision to not so much shuffle but, rather, throw himself off this mortal coil. On the morning of Saturday on the 23rd May, ex-president Noh was out climbing the hills near his home in rural Bongha when he apparently jumped from a height of 30 meters into a ravine and sustained fatal head injuries. A suicide note discovered later confirmed the suspicion that Noh had taken his own life.

As little as 18 months ago he was the South Korean president and had been since 2003. Not long after leaving office, following the landslide election victory of the conservative presidential candidate Lee Myung-bak, Noh Moo-hyun was hit with a corruption scandal. Allegations emerged that he had received a bribe of around $6 million dollars from a wealthy businessman during his time in office. At the time of his death he was under investigation and had issued a public apology to the Korean people when he was first questioned about the matter some two months ago.

Good news for me. I don’t live in some rural, backwater part of Korea anymore. I live in an area known as the “Central Government Complex” just around the corner from City Hall. So if say, hundreds of politicized mourners who support the late ex-president and are opposed to the current conservative administration decide to show up in my neighbourhood and start demanding the impeachment of the president because they believe he hounded Noh Moo-hyun to his death out of political revenge, I get to be nice and close to the action. This unique situation came to my attention on Saturday afternoon when I was walking to City Hall subway station with my wife, on our way to buy a coffee table for a planned lunch party the next day (the quintessential model of “innocent bystanders”). The streets were filled with riot police, standing around in their armour, holding their massive shields. I’ve become used to seeing them every now and then but there did seem to be an awful lot of the boys out that day. I say “boys’ because most of them look about 18 years old. From what I understand, most of them are actually kids doing their national service. Instead of being sent to the military they can apply to be posted to the police force where they all end up in the riot squad, presumably because most regular career cops don’t want to have to hang around City Hall all year waiting to beat the shit out of their fellow countrymen (or have the shit kicked out of them, in turn) when another beef crisis or anti-free trade protest flares up. I was beginning to wonder what all those squads of heavily armoured boys were doing on Saturday afternoon when we finally arrived at the subway entrance and were met by a vaguely distressed looking crowd of people surrounded by yet more riot cops.  Seems the police weren’t allowing people out of certain subway exits, namely the ones that led to the main City Hall square and the entrance to Deoksugung Palace, for fear that the initial desire to publicly mourn the death of  Noh Moo-hyun would turn into an impromptu political demonstration. We initially tried to enter the subway, having been assured by a young Korean man that it was still operating, only to witness the outbreak of a scuffle between some rather pissed off Koreans trying to get out and the cops that were barring their exit. There was some tears and some shouting and small group (it was difficult to tell precisely what was happening) of people tumbled down the stairs of the subway exit a few metres from where we stood. The situation became swiftly unappealing; more and more people were getting off the trains and arriving into the police corral and the already tense and unruly crowd was getting bigger and bigger. My thoughts turned to the recent anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster (caused by some terrible policing decisions regarding large crowds) and the fact that Noh Moo-hyun’s death was sudden and therefore the authorities weren’t really prepared for whatever it was they were trying to stop this crowd from doing. We abruptly turned around and went back the way we came.

Still got the rather spiffy coffee table in the end, despite Noh’s sudden,  histrionic exit and the fallout shenanigans thereof.

I’m intrigued as to how this will play out.  At a memorial ceremony that was eventually allowed to take place outside Deoksung Palace, mourners and Noh supporters stood by banners that read “Out with the bloodthirsty Lee Myung-bak regime!”

It seems Noh supporters (who, for want of a better term, could be called the Korean left) blame the current, conservative government for his demise.  Sentiments have been expressed to the effect that the corruption allegations were pursued out of political revenge and that politically motivated prosecutors were far too hard on the former president. Now, political disputes and partisan rivalries are conducted with a distinct lack of finesse in this country. It is not unknown for full-on fistfights to erupt between MPs in the National Assembly and opposing parties like nothing better than exploiting highly emotional situations and turning them to their political advantage.  To bring this all into a neat focus of purely self-concern, I could be looking at an interesting summer. I watched last year’s violent protests against the resumption of U.S. beef imports from the safe distance of Ganghwa. Now I have court-side seats to any potential civil unrest that lies in Korea’s future, whether I like it or not.

*It’s worth noting that you may see Noh Moo-hyun’s name frequently given as “Roh Moo-hyun” in different headlines and publications.  This is little more than an aesthetic flourish to offset the fact that the man’s family name is a homophone for the English word “no”. It’s similar to the phantom, silent “L” that Chinese and Koreans attach to the family name commonly written in English as “Lee” but properly pronounced without any “L” sound.  In both cases, it is simply the appearance of the names when written in English that is the concern.  I have typed the late ex-president’s name as “Noh” for reasons of accuracy.


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