Grief over ex-leader's suicide

2009-05-25 10:10

Seoul - Tens of thousands including North Korea's leader expressed grief on Monday at the death of former South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun, who leapt from a cliff after being questioned in a graft scandal.

The government ordered a week of mourning and a public funeral for the liberal leader who held office from 2003-8, as thousands of riot police went on guard to quell any backlash against the current conservative administration.

On the day the North announced it had staged another nuclear test, leader Kim Jong-Il sent a message of condolence to Roh's family, according to the communist state's official media.

"On hearing the news that former president Roh Moo-Hyun died in an accident, I express profound condolences to widow Kwon Ryang-Suk and his bereaved family," it said.

Roh doggedly pursued reconciliation with the North despite its 2006 nuclear and missile tests. He held a summit with Kim in Pyongyang in October 2007, only the second in the history of the two countries.

Relations between North and South have turned icy since Roh's conservative successor Lee Myung-Bak took office and linked major economic aid to progress on nuclear disarmament.

Pyongyang's state media on Sunday suggested Roh's death was linked to the prosecutors' "coercive investigation" - a view shared by some supporters of the late leader who believed the bribery probe was politically motivated.

Tens of thousands of tearful mourners, many clutching white chrysanthemums in a traditional symbol of grief, flocked to Roh's retirement village of Bongha near the southeast coast.

A poignant suicide noteĀ 

The funeral will be held there on Friday.

"It's hard to keep count," Lee Sung-Ho, an aide to the Roh family, told AFP by phone from Bongha. "Mourners are continuously streaming in. The number was well over 100 000 on Sunday alone."

Roh jumped to his death early on Saturday from a mountain near his home after going hiking with a bodyguard. He left a poignant suicide note for his family on his home computer.

"I caused so much trouble to many people," it read, according to the text released by police. "Please don't have sorrowful feelings. Aren't life and death all part of nature?"

World leaders, including US President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, offered condolences.

But some of Roh's supporters turned back conservative Korean leaders who tried to enter Bongha village to pay respects. They trampled and burnt a wreath sent by the current president.

Prosecutors on April 30 questioned Roh, 62, for 10 hours about some $6m which family members received from a wealthy shoe manufacturer.

The investigation tarnished his legacy as an anti-corruption fighter, even though he did not admit personal wrongdoing.

'Don't blame anyone. This is fate'

On May 14, in an unrelated graft case, Roh's elder brother was jailed for four years for taking more than $2m in bribes. Roh Gun-Pyeong was briefly paroled from prison so he could pay respects at Bongha.

Some mourners claimed the prosecutors' probe and associated media leaks were politically motivated. The government says the inquiry, which has also targeted a friend of the current president, is independent.

Authorities set up 31 altars across the country, including seven in Seoul, where mourners can pay tribute. Political parties, religious groups and civic organisations separately established 155 altars nationwide.

Police said more than 5 000 riot police were deployed in Seoul alone.

Apart from his reconciliation policy with North Korea, the former human rights lawyer was credited with working to make his own nation more democratic and less authoritarian.

But critics said the South's "sunshine" engagement policy gave the North too much for too little in return. A relatively sluggish economic performance also undermined Roh's popularity.

Conservative newspapers which whom Roh feuded during his term mourned the death but said it should not be politicised.

"The public will simply not tolerate particular groups of people to appropriate Roh's death to mobilise politically and plan aggressive demonstrations," said JoongAng Daily in a editorial.

It noted that Roh in his final note had written: "Don't blame anyone. This is fate."