Monday, May 25, 2009

It's not a good time to be a South Korean. On Saturday, former president Roh Moo Hyun (Roh is pronounced 'no', seriously) committed suicide by jumping off of a cliff at his country home. Today, North Korea announced that it had conducted its second nuclear test.

Koreans don't normally discuss politics with me for whatever reason, my impression is that controversial issues convey a less than positive image of Korea. The North Korean test was no exception to this rule, not that the threat from the North means anything to anyone here. Case in point: the evening news on state-run television is covering nothing but Roh's death, showing footage of thousands of mourners at a spontaneous memorial outside Deokso Palace in central Seoul.

Today, however, I had my first taste of a Korean expressing a political opinion. In November they asked Americans how they voted, without any hesitation, but no one has ever shared anything resembling an aversion or preference for a political party or candidate. I had a coworker tell me that Roh, who rose from poverty to become the president, was very popular with younger people for his attempts to break from Korea's authoritarian past. The corruption charges he faced of late, she said, were fabricated. Another coworker broke down in tears talking about it.

Korea is famous, or at least it should be, for the intensity of its politics. Seemingly insigificant issues such as imported beef from America attracted hundreds of thousands of people to rallies last summer. The death of a former president, similarly, has absolutely captivated people in a way that I don't understand (twenty minutes into the news, the first mention of the country that tested a nuke today is to say that Kim Jong Il sent his condolences to Roh's family).

The coworker who talked about Roh's popularity also said that she and her family didn't go out to see a movie on Saturday because they were too upset about Roh, though I suppose she might have meant to say that she was too captivated by the news. That sort of paralysis over the death of a leader I thought was no longer popular mystifies me, moreso than the indifference to today's nuclear test.

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