An Urgent Letter to President Roh Moo-Hyun

[Editor’s Note: When South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun, a former human rights lawyer who was elected last year on the promise that he would not kowtow to the U.S., met Mr. Bush in Washington D.C. last week, many South Koreans anticipated that Mr. Roh would demand a non-military solution to the North Korean nuclear issue.  The Bush-Roh summit was seen as a success, because the two leaders confirmed what they have already agreed upon and did not even bother to bring up what they could disagree over North Korea.  Mr. Roh was busy mollifying U.S. concerns over the perception that he is anti-American.  In a speech in New York, Mr. Roh extemporaneously said that without U.S. military intervention during the Korean War of 1950-53 he would have found himself in a political concentration camp.  What matters more to us probably is the way the self-acclaimed liberal president would handle opposition.  And he failed the test dramatically.  On May 18, in protest of what they said was Roh’s humiliating diplomacy with the U.S. about 1,000 college students of Hanchongnyeon, an outlawed national body of student unions, blocked Roh’s motorcade on its way to a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the pro-democracy uprising in the southern city of Kwangju against the 1980 military coup.  While the riot police scuffled with the protestors Mr. Roh entered the venue through a rear gate, delaying the ceremony by 18 minutes.  The next day, Mr. Roh branded the protesters as rioters and ordered his cabinet to arrest the leaders of Hanchongnyeon, which he had said the government had been studying to legalize.  Eight student leaders just landed on the list of hundreds of Hanchongnyeon students wanted on warrants.  Sohn Seok-choon, of independent Hankyoreh, is one of few journalists who sets out to defend the students’ freedom of expression. By Kap Su Seol]   

Dear President Roh Moo Hyun:

Please let me skip the cumbersome formalities of a letter at this point.  I, Sohn Seok-choon of Hankyoreh, am writing from the depths of distress — and out of urgency.  I just learned of your remarks concerning a protest of May 18 by Hanchongnyeon: “Those who want to insult and overthrow others for differences in views must be punished” and “Stern legal action should be brought to the rioters.”  At first I rubbed my eyes in doubt.

Twenty-three years ago today, May 19, the massacre began to unfold in Kwangju.  And today, you referred to the students as “rioters” at a meeting with aides in the presidential palace.  College campuses across the nation have become frozen in the midst of spring by threats of mass arrests.  This is stunning.  Let me cut to the chase.  Are you already intoxicated with power?

I can’t overemphasize this.  You are making a huge mistake.  Rioters?  Who are the rioters?  Justice Minister Kang Kum-sil, your own favorite cabinet member, promptly lent a helping hand to you.  Ms. Kang’s public vow to bring the protesters to stern justice underscored her loyalty to the president.  However, her insistence that the student protest desecrated the spirit of the Kwangju Democratic Uprising, together with your view of the protesters as rioters cannot be condoned. 

This is because come May, those days of 1980 spring to mind.  Was it the conservative media that stigmatized pro-democracy citizens of Kwangju as instigators and rioting mobs?  Was it the U.S. that approved the military massacre of the young protesters?  Were you and your justice minister sane when you branded young students as rioters for criticizing you for low-key diplomatic posturing with the U.S.; or when she said she would strictly punish them for defiling the spirit of the Kwangju Uprising?  Government Administration and Home Affairs Minister Kim Doo-kwan also has begun to throw weight behind your stance when he said he would reconsider legalizing Hanchongnyeon.  About three months into office, you have become addicted to power, and power has corrupted two reform-minded cabinet members.  

I can’t say this more clearly.  I could read hope from the Hanchongnyeon protest.  Am I alone in feeling anger that is rising over distress as you have turned out to be held prisoner by conservative media that you once fought against?  I think not.  The youth, the people in this country are still alive and kicking, those with clear eyes who elected Roh Moo-hyun to the presidency, are keeping a close watch on you with feelings of betrayal and resentment towards your words and deeds.

Well, everybody makes mistakes.  They say to err is all too human.  What matters more comes after the moment one realizes his mistake.  True courage lies in undoing an error without making excuses.  Immediately retract the menacing order for the arrest of the students.  I’d like to wrap up this letter, and hope you realize as soon as possible that you and your aides have fallen victim to public opinion manufactured by conservative media. 

Mr. SOHN, Seok Choon is an editorial writer at Hankyoreh, an independent daily published in Seoul.  He authored a wide range of books from fiction to critical study of mass media.  He is an articulate master of the Korean language who would remind any translator of his work of an old Italian saying: the translator is a traitor.  

Originally Published on Hankyereh’s Web site at on May 19, 2003

Translated and Edited by Kap Su Seol

Related Links:

To Protest the South Korean Government:
Send your email to the Ministry of Justice at

On the U.S. role in the bloody crackdown of the Kwangju Uprising:

For an Eyewitness Account of the Uprising:


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