BONGHA, South Korea – Each day, a stream of cars and buses pulls into this hamlet of 121 people, disgorging thousands of tourists on a typical weekday and up to 20,000 on Sundays. They all come to see one man, the village’s newest resident.
When that man takes a walk to a hill behind his house or to a nearby marsh, they follow him in droves – fathers carrying small children on their shoulders, housewives snapping pictures with cellphones and those who get close to him thrusting their babies out to be blessed by him. When he is holed up in his house, they pile up at the gate and shout in unison:
“Mr. President, please come out!”
Since Roh Moo Hyun left office on Feb. 25 and returned to the village in the country’s southeast where he was born, he has become something South Koreans have never seen before: a former president as tourist attraction.
“Today, people were yelling outside from 9 a.m.,” Roh, 61, told a group of tourists gathered outside his home on a recent day. “Whether in office or retired, a president needs some privacy. All of you coming all the way to see me puts a big burden on me.
“I feel grateful. But I also feel sorry that I can’t shake hands with each one of you or invite you all in for tea,” he said.
Cameras flashed. People cheered, jostling to get closer.
“Hey, president! Where is the first lady? Can we see her too?” blurted an old man.
Roh’s wife, Kwon Yang Sook, sometimes joins Roh to greet the crowds. Otherwise, he fends off the common request with a joke. “She is washing dishes,” he says, or, “She is putting on cosmetics and doesn’t want you to wait around because, you know, it takes a while.”
This ritual repeats itself up to eight times a day, said Kim Min Jeong, a tour guide in Bongha. “He can’t get away from it. When one group leaves, another group quickly gathers at his gate. If he doesn’t come out, it gets noisy outside and he can’t work inside,” Kim said. “It’s not easy being a former president.”
Roh was unpopular in office; toward the end of his term, his approval rating fell below 30 percent, according to surveys. But in the weeks since Lee Myung Bak succeeded him, he has been establishing himself as a new kind of retired president.
In the past, if South Koreans marched on a former leader’s home and shouted outside his gate, they were demonstrators, not tourists. Of Roh’s predecessors, one was ousted in a popular uprising, one was assassinated and two were imprisoned for sedition and corruption. Roh’s two immediate predecessors saw their names tarnished in the public eye by way of their children; a son of Kim Young Sam went to prison for bribery, and all three of Kim Dae Jung’s sons were convicted of corruption.
And while past presidents have, like Roh, hailed from rural areas, they chose to make their homes in Seoul upon leaving office. The other four surviving ex-presidents now live under heavy police guard in the capital, where some meddle in domestic politics but none mingle with ordinary people.
Roh, in contrast, rides his bicycle through Bongha. He plants trees and cleans ditches with farmers. He keeps a blog. And he has visitors, thousands of them, every day.
Roh’s move into a newly built, low-slung house has brought a swirl of change to Bongha, where residents, when asked what besides Roh their town is famous for, give you a sheepish smile and cite its abundant persimmon trees.
Banners welcoming Roh flutter everywhere. A road has been widened, and new parking lots built; nevertheless, on weekends, the snarled traffic forces tourists to abandon their cars outside the village and walk, creating the incongruous scene of throngs making a pilgrimage on foot to a no-name hamlet where there is nothing around but rice paddies.
Villagers have turned their town hall into a thriving restaurant for tourists. Outsiders have moved in to cash in on the phenomenon by selling steamed ears of corn, roasted chestnuts and herbs along the narrow alley leading to Roh’s 4,000-square-meter, or 43,000-square-foot, residential compound.
“I didn’t particularly like him when he was president,” said Lee Soo In, 22, a college student. “But it really feels good to be able to see a former president up close and see where he lives. He feels like an uncle next door. We don’t have such intimacy with other former presidents. They all maintain an authoritative, boring persona.”
Shin Jeong Sook, 30, a kindergarten teacher, brought 67 children with her so they “can have inspiration from the president’s rags-to-fame career,” she said. (Born into a family too poor to send him to college, Roh educated himself and passed the bar exam without having attended law school.)
In a country where many practice feng shui, some visitors have sought an answer to Roh’s success in the village’s topography and “ki,” as Koreans call the mystic energy said to pulse through a place and influence the fate of those who are born there.
Kim Ik Soon, 65, asserted that a big rock on the hill behind the village, where signal fires were once built on an ancient mound, radiates an auspicious power that not only made Roh president but ensured that he would not become a “thief,” unlike his scandal-ridden predecessors.
“Some come to absorb the ki of this house,” said Kim Young Ja, 62, who has lived for 40 years in Roh’s humble boyhood home, just downhill from his new residence. She believes the house’s energy is powerful enough to produce another president, perhaps one of her grandchildren.
“They peek into our room and even try to crawl in to get the maximum ki,” she said of the tourists. “No privacy for my family.” But she has turned the situation to her advantage, selling Roh Moo Hyun T-shirts, bath towels and key chains.
At the entrance to her house, a plaque tells a story guaranteed to pique a Korean mother’s interest: that of Roh’s mother’s so-called “dream of the womb,” in which a pregnant woman is said to see her child’s future. When she was pregnant with the future luminary, the plaque says, an old man with snow-white hair showed up in a dream and gave her a large horse.
“When she rode it,” the plaque says, “its hooves sounded like thunder.”
Roh’s five-year presidency rocked South Korea. Casting himself as a champion for liberal ideas and the underprivileged, he attempted to break collusive ties between business and politics, tried to curtailed the power of big newspapers and conglomerates and engaged Communist North Korea. Vastly popular at the start of his term, Roh’s fortunes soured in later years as he was accused of bungling the economy and failing to rein in housing prices.
After a year in office, Roh became the first South Korean president to be impeached. Although he survived in office, his combative rhetoric and distaste for compromise led to endless bickering with his conservative critics throughout his term.
“He had a lot of enemies because he comes from a poor background and had no connections, just like us poor farmers here,” said Roh Jae Dong, a distant relative and former classmate of the ex-president. “I am happy that his popularity is rising after coming here and people come to see him.”
Roh’s conservative successor, Lee, has been quick to undo some of Roh’s legacies, particularly the “sunshine policy,” begun by Kim Dae Jung, of using economic aid to promote reconciliation with North Korea.
Roh says he has no intention of getting involved in politics. Skeptics, however, question how long the former firebrand will remain aloof. Though he lives in the countryside now, Roh remains connected by way of the Internet, as well as a network of die-hard supporters who call themselves Nosamo, short for “people who love Roh Moo Hyun.”
Roh said he was busy juicing up his Web site, another first for a former president, which he wants to turn into a Wikipedia-like database on social and environmental issues.
“I am extremely busy. I’ve got lots of things to do,” Roh said. “When I was president, I slept at least six hours a day, no matter what, because it was my duty as head of state to keep a good health. But last night I slept less than five hours, staying up until 1 a.m. working. I feel free.”