By Song Jung-a and Christian Oliver in Seoul
Published: May 24 2009 13:46 | Last updated: May 24 2009 17:15
Tens of thousands of mourners gathered across South Korea to pay their final respects to Roh Moo-hyun, a former president who committed suicide at the weekend as he faced a growing corruption scandal.
Shortly after dawn on Saturday, Mr Roh, 62, went hiking on a mountain behind his home in Bongha, a village in the south-east of the peninsula. Police said he jumped from a cliff-face near the summit and suffered severe head injuries. He left a brief suicide note to his family.
South Koreans were stunned by the sudden death of Mr Roh, famed abroad for his attempts to build a rapprochement with communist North Korea. “This is hard to believe,” said Lee Myung-bak, the president. “It’s very sad and lamentable.”
Mr Roh, who left office in February 2008, had complained he was suffering from intense stress because of a scandal involving alleged corruption during his presidency. Prosecutors summoned him last month for an investigation into allegations that his family received $6m from a businessman while he was in office. His family has also been grilled.
Mr Roh’s supporters claimed the investigation was politically motivated to undermine the opposition and that the prosecutors’ probe into his family drove him to take his own life. The government on Sunday said the case against Mr Roh was closed but analysts speculate his suicide still threatens to catalyse the country’s political tensions.
Thousands of people queued up to burn incense and bow before a make-shift altar erected to Mr Roh in downtown Seoul. As Mr Roh was fond of smoking, many mourners left a cigarette rather than an incense stick. State radio reported 10,000 mourners had visited Bongha by Sunday morning.
“I am lost for words. His death is a great loss for the country,” said Kim Jae-suk, a 52-year-old housewife waiting for her turn in the tearful crowd gathered at the altar.
Mr Roh’s death came as prosecutors were due to decide whether to charge him. Mr Roh admitted his wife had taken money from a businessman to pay family debts. He had issued a public apology, but the scandal dealt a blow to his image as a clean politician in a rotten system.
Mr Roh, a former human rights lawyer, was elected in 2002 on a promise to reform powerful conglomerates, fight corruption, improve relations with Pyongyang and make Seoul more independent from the US, its long-standing military ally.
However, his five-year term proved turbulent, marked by political infighting and scandals. Mr Roh was impeached by lawmakers in early 2004 over a breach of election rules but was two months later reinstated after the Constitutional Court overturned the move.
His death may rekindle tensions between predominantly young liberals and older conservatives in South Korea, where President Lee, a conservative former businessman, came to power last year after a decade of liberal rule.
“A controversy is flaring up over whether the prosecutors were responsible for his death. If the government fails to handle this well, then the probe could be seen as a political revenge against Mr Roh. In that case, it will be a huge political burden for Mr Lee,” said Ham Sung-deuk, a politics professor at Korea University.