On the Saturday morning that Roh Moo-hyun died, I asked the mechanic fixing my car his reaction. "I'd like to know who pushed him," he said.
That natural question appeared to have been laid to rest when Moon Jae-in, the former President's closest aide, went on TV to reveal the suicide note on Roh's computer. Police said Roh had distracted his bodyguard with a question about some other hikers and jumped off the rock face to his death.
But in the following days, discrepancies in this story emerged. The bodyguard changed his testimony. Roh had sent him off to the nearby temple on an errand and he returned to find him missing. He had lied because he was afraid.
From this point, the questions start. How do we know this version is the truth? How do we know Roh jumped if no one saw him? How do we know he wrote the note? It came out after the funeral that the CCTV camera had caught Roh leaving at 5:38 a.m., six minutes before, not after, the suicide note was saved on the PC.
Apparently, there was not much blood on the ground.
How come? Why was the bodyguard changed, apparently against Roh's wishes, the day before? Why did he call the Blue House and not for an ambulance when he found Roh on the ground? Why did he put Roh on his back and put him in a car when everyone knows lifting an injured person can kill them? How critical was he when he arrived at the first hospital? Why did the first hospital put pajamas on him before moving him to the second hospital? Who, as one daily and one TV station have reported, is the doctor from the first hospital who has committed suicide, and why?
Each of these questions can, of course be answered. The computer may have auto-saved. Injured people are routinely bundled into taxis. The doctor may be unrelated.
Now consider other government actions. When people started to pay their respects to Roh at a makeshift altar in downtown Seoul after Roh's death, the police deployed as if they considered them ― outnumbered at first ― to be radicals mourning a terrorist.
You could see then, in the lines of ordinary people genuinely upset by the death of their last president, where Korean contempt for authority comes from. It's mutual. The authorities fear the nebulous beast of public sentiment, and consider it something to be obeyed only when it gets out of control.
If you've had dealings with them, you'll know that the police actually make an effort to be civil. But they had a job to do. At one point, a policeman moved in to video the people arranging the altar. One man lost his temper and threw a bottle of water and the policeman retreated. Police grabbed a group of people trying to get across the road to the city square and arrested them. My sister-in-law, the only woman, was let go.
This street drama may not seem very important to non-Koreans. The police wanted to avoid anti-government crowds holding candle-lit protests in the city plaza on the scale of the anti-U.S. beef demonstrations last year. So what? But, in fact, the police action amounted to a constitutional violation of the right to assembly.
Look more closely and you'll see that President Lee has more than a stylistic or communications problem. There are also numerous claims of government interference in news coverage and that TV people have been fired for criticizing the government. A recent story says that the governmental Korea Communications Commission has been "encouraging" business groups not to advertise with the 70-percent government-owned MBC TV network. This amounts to a credible charge of interference in the freedom of the press.
It is no wonder, then, that so many South Koreans have only a passing interest in the North Korean nuclear tests which have the rest of the world's attention. You don't need to have a high level of mistrust to know that North Korea news is always used as a distraction.
It's no wonder, too, as a Transparency International survey revealed this week, that eight out of 10 Koreans do not trust the government's anti-corruption drives. Nor, it seems, does the chief prosecutor, Lim Chae-jin, who offered to resign for the second time saying, "feel it is no longer appropriate for me to command the prosecution when I am overcome by agony and confusion."
Hundreds of academics this week have signed statements calling on the President to make amends and respect democratic rights. If he ignores them, the domestic politics situation will only get worse.