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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Funny how sudden death can turn a mortal into a god

Koreans collectively mourned this week as former President Roh Moo-hyun was cremated following his suicide last Saturday. Even after his funeral on Friday, memorials are still set up around the city to honor the popular ex-leader. 

Walking toward Deoksu Palace today, I noticed a line of police vans and officers queuing around the block. It's a fairly common sight, especially during the weekends when people protest everything from Lee Myung-bak's administration to relations with China. 

I soon realized that the police were there to observe, if not regulate, a Roh memorial. A line of around two dozen people stretched back from the tent and a security guard carefully monitored who approached the altar, adorned with offerings of fruit and flowers. (It was nothing like the several-hundred people gatherings I've been reading about in the newspaper.)

As a group of young girls approached, they first stood silently (praying, maybe?) and then, in unison, got on their hands and knees to bow. Then they rose and backed slowly away, not turning their backs on the altar until they had retreated a significant distance. 

It was interesting and yet bizarre. Certainly public mourning is expected when a president dies and Roh was popular as a pro-democracy leader, yet to deify him seems to take it a step too far. 

The police presence also fascinates me. There have been several clashes between police and mourners this week, with many mourners arguing that the increased police presence is a power play by increasingly-unpopular President Lee.

I don't know what the truth is but the president can't be happy to read reports that many Koreans believe political pressure from Lee's administration led to Roh's suicide. And now to see such a public outcry at his death -- Roh has been turned into a martyr in the eyes of some Koreans -- does nothing to improve Lee's standing with his citizens. 

The memorial would have been touching was it not for the overwhelming media presence. Although very quiet and respectful, there were numerous camera crews and photographers there to document every person who approached the altar. The photographers in particular moved in barely a foot from the mourners, giving them no personal space, and really ruining what would otherwise have been a serene moment. (And yes, I realize that whipping out my camera didn't help but I figured if these men with huge, high-powered lenses could stand around taking hundreds of shot, I could take one or two pictures with my point-and-click.)