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Lessons from Roh Hoe-chan

July 31,2018
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Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In an epitaph, Kim Young-oak, a leading progressive thinker otherwise known as Master Doh-ol, likened the late leftist lawmaker Roh Hoe-chan to a modern Korean Jesus, who lived among the working class and spoke to them in their own language. Roh was not just popular for his witty and sharp tongue — for instance, he called for a full makeover of Korean politics because it was time to change “the barbecue grill pan” — but was also popular because he was devoted to laborers and the socially weak.

In his acceptance speech as head of the Justice Party in 2012, he raised the issue of the hard lives of cleaning ladies. “The cleaning ladies living in the Guro district in Seoul wake up at 3 a.m. every day and get on the No. 6411 bus at 4 a.m. to get to work in the office buildings in Gangnam, southern Seoul,” he said. “Where were we when they cried out for help, living as invisible beings on their pitiful 850,000 won ($762) monthly paycheck? I want to take this party to them and hold their hands.”

Many people wept upon seeing the video, remembering better times for Roh, who jumped to his death after he was accused of accepting money from an organization run by a power blogger nicknamed Druking, who was arrested for an online manipulation campaign. Lee Chan-jin, founder of Hancom and former conservative party lawmaker, said he decided to join the Justice Party upon seeing that video.

I recommend the Blue House aides who have deep respect for the deceased lawmaker replay the video for inspiration as they look for direction in their income-led growth policy. A number of small merchants — mostly mom-and-pop shopkeepers — and owners of small enterprises are suffering from the near 30-percent jump in the minimum wage spread over this year and the next. As a result, students cannot find part-time jobs in shops. Troubles being felt by the lower income brackets have translated into a plunge in the approval rating for President Moon Jae-in.

Moon hosted a “street talk” over beers at a pub in Gwanghwamun, downtown Seoul, over the weekend to reach out to his lower income base. Many of them asked for moderation in the pace and scope of his campaign to raise the minimum wage. If the president had listened to the public earlier, the chaos and hardship in the small business field could have been avoided.

Few would oppose the government’s desire to ease the yawning income gap. But lifting the hourly minimum wage to 10,000 won should not be the ultimate goal. Achieving it within a short period of time would surely come at the expense of self-employed shopkeepers, small merchants and part-timers. Their victimization should bring shame on the government’s “people-first” slogan.

During his last overseas trip to Washington, Roh told correspondents it is impossible to fulfill the promise made during the May 2017 presidential campaign to raise the minimum wage to 10,000 won per hour by 2020. The self-employed take up 28 percent of the working population in Korea, or four times that of the United States. They are the ones who have been hurt the most. Such follow-up measures as lowering the credit card commissions they must pay or rents won’t be enough to narrow the income gap.

Without reforming the labor market in an economy where more than 70 percent of restaurants go out of business within the first year, a hike in the minimum wage cannot help. Instead of stubbornly clinging to the 10,000 won wage promise, the government should seek realistic ways to ease the income gap.

Moon reportedly goes to bed at 3:00 a.m. after examining piles of meeting notes and reports. Once he returns from his summer break early next month, he must turn his attention to the struggling business fields. “The revolution must be intended to remove specific evil, not to realize an abstract good,” said Karl Popper, one of the most influential philosophers of science in the 20th century.

Upon meeting the young Roh — who as a high school student secretly circulated fliers criticizing strongman Park Chung Hee’s attempts to change the constitution and extend his presidency — Ham Seok-heon, a leader in the nonviolent democracy movement, said that when eyes fill up with tears, they can see heaven.

Roh lived dutifully in that wisdom and devoted himself to improving the rights of the working class, women and the nation’s minorities.
Kim Hyong-o, a conservative who served as the National Assembly speaker, remembered Roh as an “open-minded” politician who “criticized without being hostile and stuck to his guns without insulting an opponent.”

A gray-haired cleaning lady in her 70s on the 6411 bus heading to an office building in southern Seoul said in a teary voice said she believed Roh would continue to fight for the rights of people like her in heaven. The eulogy about him being a contemporary Korean Jesus may not be an exaggeration. It is backed by a grassroots movement touched by his genuine care.

Roh traveled across the country in his 11-year-old car to places where minorities needed a voice. Instead of upholding political rhetoric, Moon and his team must learn from the late idealist-turned-realist Roh.

Roh ended his life because he could not forgive himself for betraying the people who supported him. I imagine him enjoying pork barbecue with his uniquely hearty laugh amongst the minorities he loved so dearly in heaven.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 30, Page 31