- 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.

Mr. Roh, a human rights lawyer who entered politics in 1988, won a surprise victory over conservative Lee Hoi-chang in 2002, amid the country’s largest ever anti-American protests, and went on to survive a 2004 impeachment.

However, he failed to win support for key policies, such as his plan to move the nation’s capital from Seoul and his 2007 Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., which still awaits ratification. Middle-class voters were alienated by his so-called “tax bomb” on real estate, which imposed a very high property-tax rate on expensive homes. It was ruled unconstitutional by the country’s constitutional court in November.

After North Korea’s 2006 detonation of a nuclear device, many saw his pro-North policy as appeasement. The future of his main achievement, the joint North-South Kaesong Industrial Zone, is now in question.

Although he had tense relations with President George W. Bush, Mr. Roh angered his own support base by deploying South Korean troops to Iraq - albeit in the peaceful north of the country. As his popularity dwindled, his Uri Party collapsed - to be replaced by the Democratic Party.

He was plagued by moments of self-doubt - he famously stated publicly that he was considering giving up the presidency owing to his own inadequacy and lack of public support - and was embittered by the conservative press’ hostility toward him. He looked genuinely happy when he left office in early 2008.

Facing a legacy of political failure, it appears that all Mr. Roh had left was his reputation as a man free of the corruption that has tainted virtually every one of his predecessors.

The aftermath of the suicide looks likely to provoke considerable soul searching among South Koreans about the omnipresent dirt tarnishing politics and business, and may generate a backlash against Mr. Roh’s opponents in the right-wing press and politics.