Roh Hoe-Chan (C) gets removed from the speaker's chair at the National Assembly on November 23, 2005, during a heated debate. Roh, however, was one of the more moderate politicians in South Korea. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-Je

Roh Hoe-chan’s star had never risen higher. The South Korean politician, veteran activist and legislator was whip for the minority Justice Party, had emerged as a strong supporter of President Moon Jae-in and charmed millions with his humorous comments in regular podcast appearances.

His name had become synonymous with the Justice Party, whose approval rating stood at a record high. On July 23, the county was shocked to learn of his death in an apparent suicide; Roh had jumped from a tall building.

His passing shone a spotlight on the unfinished business of his life’s work, which was dedicated to prying open the halls of power in Seoul in order to give a voice to previously excluded groups.

From labor activism to politics

Simultaneously a fighter and bridge-builder, Roh occupied a distinctive place in South Korea’s politics. In a context in which labor representatives can be quickly written off as “commies,” Roh was respected by politicians of all stripes. Panel programs on television loved him for his effect on the audience.

He could be witty and sharp without being aggressive or arrogant. His style made politics easy to understand – even pleasant.

He shared an activist background with his wife. His leisure activities included playing cello and composing music. His humble vision was a society in which anyone could enjoy playing a musical instrument. Roh’s funeral elicited an outpouring of grief.

He first made his name in the labor movement of the 1980s when the country was under the rule of former generals. While studying at the elite Korea University, he enrolled in a vocational school and worked with manual laborers. Labor activism in South Korea occurred alongside and within a broader democracy movement, which succeeded in winning democratic reforms in 1987.

After democratization, though, the forces of social activism failed miserably to convert their power into electoral impact. Labor groups like the ones Roh helped lead failed in the 1990s to win a single National Assembly seat. Instead, the parties that dominated Korean politics before 1987 – descendants of parties formed in the mid-1950s mostly of former landowners and administrators – continued to do so afterward.

Some activists stayed in unions and civil organizations, eschewing institutionalized politics, for fear of diluting their mission. Others joined the established parliamentary parties. In doing so, some abandoned the labor cause in pursuit of political ambition.

A prominent example is former legislator and provincial governor Kim Mun-su. He was an impressive student activist who spent his nights teaching Marxism to sweatshop workers. After failing to break into the National Assembly under his own party in the early 1990s, Kim eventually joined the conservative party – where he built a successful political career, at the cost of traveling far from his original mission.

Roh took a different path, sticking with the labor movement to fight for change through politics. He assumed leadership roles in the various incarnations of the labor party that started to gain recognition in politics in the early 2000s. His party gained an unprecedented 10 seats in the National Assembly in 2004. He served again in 2012-13 and was in his third term at the time of his death.

Taking the middle road

The image of Roh joking with politicians from other parties symbolizes his contribution to South Korea’s democracy, which tends to be heavily polarized between right and left. His optimism and commitment to engaging other viewpoints distinguished his style from many others.

A history of anti-communist propaganda makes the middle class reluctant to endorse the militant style adopted by some labor representatives, but Roh won support from this demographic by giving labor parties a more approachable face. He was not only a champion of labor, but he also demonstrated a faith in institutionalized politics that pushed South Korea’s democracy to become more open and pluralist, breaking the old parties’ stranglehold on power and public debate.

As parties worldwide have separated from popular bases, “movements” have been presented as alternatives to politics. Roh managed to marry activism and party politics in a manner that is uncommon in South Korea, and which is increasingly rare worldwide.

After Moon won the presidency last year, Roh became a vocal supporter of the administration. Instead of criticizing Moon’s Democratic Party-led government, as labor parties had done in the past, he praised Moon and urged him to move in a progressive direction. This positive attitude helped push the Justice Party into the mainstream, winning broad approval for him and the party. Policies he helped design have also been adopted by the government.

Roh’s passing drew comparisons with the 2009 suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun. Despite sharing the same surnames, they were not related. Both fought for under-represented groups, took hard paths into politics and had successful political careers despite being outsiders. President Roh, who served from 2003 to 2008, entered a mainstream party through an extraordinarily open candidate selection process.

Both their suicides came in the midst of dubious accusations of wrongdoing.

Allegations of skullduggery

Prosecutors in 2009 had summoned former president Roh for questioning in connection to a claim a family member had received a watch illegally. It has now been discovered that prosecutors acted under pressure from the office of then-president Lee Myung Bak, who is now in prison awaiting trial on charges that include massive embezzlement.

Roh Hoe-chan was being questioned alongside other politicians in connection with the so-called “Druking” incident. Druking is the online handle of the leader of an internet community that mostly supported President Moon’s Democratic Party, though it also at times offered support to conservative parties. The community mobilized people to write favorable online comments for these politicians.

Whether this mobilization was genuine activism or the opportunistic work of a political mercenary remains uncertain. Kim Tong-won, Druking’s real name, is in prison on suspicion of illegal campaign donations. Was Kim hired by politicians to influence online opinion? Or did he work independently in hopes of gaining something from the politicians his network supported?

Distinguishing these two options, which are harder than ever to separate in an age when news and rumor are blurred, is the difficult task of the special prosecutor assigned to the case.

In the initial investigation, Roh was questioned in connection with possibly receiving 50 million won (US$45,000) from Kim in exchange for promises of benefits. He was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the case was then reopened. The suspicion was almost certainly frustrating for someone who had received public praise for a style of fundraising that focused on large numbers of small contributions.

Whether Roh’s suicide has any link to the investigation can only be speculation at this point. In a note found when his death was discovered, Roh wrote that his suicide had nothing to do with the case. Roh had lived through many more trying experiences in his long career in activism. This episode seems minor in comparison – which makes his passing all the more puzzling.

Roh’s career underscores the challenge of making South Korea’s politics genuinely plural. Questions swirling around his death point to democracy’s current difficulties in using legal means to separate wrongdoing from rumor and insinuation. This episode is only the latest outbreak of a global affliction.

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