Expat Dribble

Andrea Avery Jackley: An expat with lots of dribble to write about.

5.26.09

In light of all the extraordinary news coming out of the Korean Peninsula lately, I’ve been having some pretty candid conversations with my students. Surprising to many Westerners, the most upsetting of the weekend’s events wasn’t the large underground nuclear test conducted by North Korea’s crazy-as-bats-outta-hell regime that sparked a 4.7 “seismic event”, but rather the suicide of ex-president Roh Moo Hyun. 

The South Koreans are so completely desensitized to the threat from the North that many of them not only disregard their actions, but if they’re brazen enough (so many Koreans are too shy to speak) will even joke about it. One of the teenage boys in my class was so amused by North Korea’s latest actions that he quipped: “I fought North Korea – and I WON!” Another told me he was Kim Jong Il’s best friend, and would be visiting next weekend. I actually think these were the same students that asked me if I personally owned a gun – after all, I AM an American –  and if teenagers were allowed to purchase guns in America. I lied.

On the other hand, the suicide of Rho has some people truly devastated. People are crying in the streets of Seoul, tens of thousands flocked to the town where he died to mourn and protest, and most importantly, it was the first topic of conversation in each of my classes on Monday.

Many of the students tell me their parents are upset. This man, Roh, accomplished a great deal in his life – from meager beginnings on a rural farm to passing the notoriously difficult Korean bar exam without a college education, going on to become a human rights lawyer that often railed against the conservative establishment. While his presidency is widely considered to be a failure, many people say it was because he was too ambitious with his mere five-year term (no reelection permitted in South Korea). He is credited with shaking things up while in office, sowing the seeds of reform, and not to be left unsaid, trying to repair relations with Pyongyang. In short, he was a liberal. 

The driving force behind his suicide were accusations that he had illegally accepted $6 million in contributions from a prominent businessman during his time in office. He had been interrogated, dragged through the mud and jabbed in the side by every media organization in the country… BUT he denied the allegations to the bitter end, and hadn’t been charged. 

Excuse the full biography, but I find this Roh an interesting character. And the tumult running through this country at the moment can’t be ignored. Thinkers and pundits are claiming that Roh’s final act – flinging himself off a 100-foot cliff, leaving behind a simple an electronic letter flashing on his computer screen – was a last “gotcha” for the conservative political establishment he fought against his whole life. But here’s the catch-22: South Koreans as a group have a suicidal tendency that goes beyond your run-of-the-mill housewife depression turns to bubble-bath drowning – some of the high-profile cases over the last few years include a son of the founder of the Hyundai Group (which if I haven’t mentioned it up until now, I am convinced owns the nation) that jumped from his 12th-story office window, a ridiculously popular actress who hanged herself due to Internet gossip, and a pop singer who followed suit.

Unfortunately, this has led to such disturbing phenomena as “Internet suicide cafes”, where people wishing to off themselves can meet and discuss the grisly details; perhaps even enjoy a latte together before the deed. All morbid kidding aside, there are Roh copycat suicides taking place each day… by middle-aged men and women. Teenagers are the main concern, of course; but the kids are, as is to be expected, more prone to mirroring their beloved pop-culture role models. Good food for thought for my Advanced class this evening, but a topic I would rather not have to repeat down the road.

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