“People hated me. People asked me to stop my investigations. The Supreme Court stripped me of my seat in the National Assembly. But you know what?” Roh Hoe-chan (pronounced “Noh Hwae-chan”) asked me, leaning forward from his plastic stool at our barbecue, scooping a slice of pork off the smoky grill and downing a soju shot, laughing. “I’m not afraid to go to prison!”
Even as Roh recounted dark days, his smile was always alight, his laughter hearty, his words cheerful. “Mr Clean” was his nickname in South Korea, where he was a straight-shooting parliamentarian who spoke loudly in the republic’s scandal-prone and raucous politics. “Too many politicians represent themselves,” the left-wing lawmaker told me. “Their egos get big. They forget about the purpose of being a leader in a democracy: that the poor and powerless need a voice.”
South Koreans saw him less as a politician and more as a fighter and activist. He got his start in South Korea’s passionate labour demonstrations of the 1980s, when the country was a troubled dictatorship about to be thrust into democracy. As a welder in the early 1980s, he organised his fellow factory workers into a union, and was sent to prison for more than two years in 1989. “After that, I went on to be a journalist,” he told me. “I wrote articles about labour. I wanted to get the word out when all these changes were happening in South Korea, when the door was suddenly swung open to democracy and this new movement was gushing through it.”
In 2004, Roh began his first term in parliament, where he got a reputation as a modest and stoic leader from outside the political establishment, wearing ratty loafers, owning only two suits and driving a well-worn Hyundai Sonata. Now he had a microphone to campaign in a way few members of South Korea’s political elite were willing to do at the time: by battling his country’s most powerful and well-heeled corporation, Samsung.
“One day in 2005, I got a CD in the mail from an anonymous tipster,” he said. “I played it on my computer. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.” An independent firm analysed the recording — an illegal wiretap by the nation’s spy agency in 1997 — and determined that the conversation was between one of Samsung’s chief executives and a newspaper publisher who would later become South Korea’s ambassador to the United States. According to Roh’s transcript of the recording, they were discussing slush fund money that could be given to prosecutors. South Koreans called the recording the Samsung X-file.
Roh and an investigative journalist revealed the contents of the recordings to the public, causing a national furore that led to a parliamentary hearing. The ambassador and a vice-minister of justice stepped down. But amazingly, nobody heard on the recordings was convicted. Instead, about a year later, Roh got a call from prosecutors. “We’re going to have to charge you,” said a reluctant voice on the other line, according to Roh.
After three sensational court battles, the Supreme Court unseated Roh from parliament in 2013 for violating a wiretapping law, which forbade the release of the tapes online. Roh was defiant. “I don’t regret it,” he said. “I stood up for what was right.”
The verdict mattered little in the end. His heroics — and the legal backlash against him — had elevated him to pre-eminence among his followers. Roh was re-elected to parliament in May 2016.
In my interviews with Roh, it was clear that he held himself to a high standard of justice, principle and transparency. When he fell short once, he never forgave himself. In April 2018, a prominent blogger who went by the pen name “Druking” (a portmanteau of “Druid” and “King”) was arrested for using software to boost blog comments critical of President Moon Jae-in.
The scandal spread to Roh, who was investigated for allegedly receiving illegal payments from the blogger’s associate. Suddenly, the image of “Mr. Clean” had a taint, even though the allegations against him were tame by the standards of South Korean politics.
Earlier this week, on the morning of 23 July, Roh, 61, leapt from his mother’s apartment building in Seoul, ending his own life. In his suicide note, he admitted to having received about $35,500. “But there were no strings attached to the money, and I also never promised anything in return,” he wrote. “I take the blame for all the failings.”
Roh’s suicide sparked widespread mourning; more than 9,000 people attended his wake. His conservative political opponents admired him, telling the South Korean media that they wanted to be like him. President Moon Jae-in, a fellow liberal, said that Roh had made South Korean society more progressive. “Everyone,” wrote the activist Park Rae-gun, “was equal in their mourning of Roe Hoe-chan’s loss.”
Geoffrey Cain, based in Seoul and Washington, DC, is a contributing editor at Mekong Teahouse. Max Soeun Kim contributed reporting.