- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

SEOUL | South Korea was a state in shock on Saturday after news that former President Roh Moo-hyun, 62, had committed suicide early that morning.

An enthusiastic hiker like many Koreans, Mr. Roh was walking through mountains near his modest home in the southeastern Korean village of Bongha when he distracted an accompanying aide and leapt to his death off a cliff, news reports said.

Mr. Roh occupied the presidential Blue House from 2003 to 2008. A sensitive man with a populist touch, he was widely considered an ineffectual president but was respected as “Mr. Clean” in a society riddled with corruption.

A bribery scandal that came to light last month, however, left Mr. Roh’s ethical reputation in tatters. Mr. Roh was questioned by prosecutors over allegations that he, his brother, wife and son had accepted $6 million in bribes from a local businessman. Further probes were scheduled as the investigation widened.

Part of Mr. Roh’s suicide note, left on his personal computer, was read on television. “It has been so hard for me … I caused many people trouble,” the note said. “Please raise me a shrine in the village. Don’t hold any grudges.”

Mr. Roh’s wife, implicated in the scandal, collapsed and was reportedly in medical care.

Mourners wailed as Mr. Roh’s coffin, draped in red, returned to Bongha from a hospital in the nearby city of Busan, the Associated Press reported. His two children, sobbing, followed the casket to the community center near his birthplace of Gimhae, 280 miles from Seoul. Hundreds lined up late in the night to pay their respects.

In the capital, more than 2,500 people held a somber candlelight memorial service at a makeshift mourning site, many bowing, burning incense and leaving white chrysanthemums, a traditional Korean symbol of grief.

The left-wing Mr. Roh’s successor, conservative President Lee Myung-bak, said in a statement, “This is a truly unbelievable, lamentable and deeply sad event.”

In Washington, President Obama said he was “saddened” by the news and offered his condolences to Mr. Roh’s family and the South Korean people. Mr. Obama said Mr. Roh had contributed to a “strong and vital” relationship between the U.S. and South Korea, according to the AP.

While every president since South Korea was established in 1948 has faced disgrace for corruption, human rights abuses or both after leaving office - bar one who was exiled, and one who was assassinated - none has ever committed suicide.

The Justice Ministry announced it was halting all Roh-related investigations hours after the news broke.

“People who are really corrupt can live with it, but Roh was a crusader who could not deal with the fact that he had done something wrong himself,” said Michael Breen, author of “The Koreans.” “Criminals live with their criminality; he was an honest man.”

During the interrogation into the bribery case, Mr. Roh denied the allegations against him, prosecution spokesman Cho Eun-sok told the AP. A worried Mr. Roh wasn’t eating properly and had taken up smoking recently, news reports said.

Story Continues →