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Despair overwhelms an ex-President

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A NATION SHOCKED: Mourners holding flowers, wait to participate in a funeral service for the former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun near his house in Gimhae on Sunday.
A NATION SHOCKED: Mourners holding flowers, wait to participate in a funeral service for the former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun near his house in Gimhae on Sunday.

Choe Sang-Hun

SEOUL: Before dawn on Saturday, the former President, Roh Moo-hyun, of South Korea switched on his computer and typed a suicide note — his last comment on a corruption scandal that has threatened to undo his proudest, and last remaining, legacy: his record as an upstanding political leader.

“Don’t be too sad,” Roh said in a note meant for his wife and two children. “Life and death are all parts of nature. Don’t be sorry. Don’t blame anyone. Accept it as fate.”

An hour and a half later as the sun rose through a cloudy sky, Roh, 62, climbed a hill overlooking his native village of Bongha, on the south coast, accompanied by a bodyguard. He then jumped off a cliff. In his last months, Roh had seen his personal achievements clouded by accusations of corruption and many of his political accomplishments undone. Roh, who was President from 2003 to 2008, devoted much of that time — and abundant foreign aid — to nurturing warmer relations with the reclusive government of North Korea. But after South Koreans grew frustrated with what they felt was a lack of significant progress with the North, they turned to a conservative leader, Lee Myung-bak.

Since Lee’s election, the North has lashed out, most recently launching a long-range rocket despite objections from the West and threatening to close one of the clearest symbols of North-South progress: the industrial complex in Kaesong, where South Korean companies employ North Korean workers.

Those who were close to Roh said the charges of corruption, which his allies say were politically motivated, were especially painful since he had made his name as a “clean” politician. In recent weeks, he acknowledged that a businessman who supported him had given more than $6 million to his wife and son and his brother’s son-in-law while he was in office, but he denied they were bribes. He said he did not know about the transactions until he left office and that the money that went to his wife was used to pay a debt. The news of Roh’s death came as a shock to the nation which, unlike Japan, does not have a strong history of political and other leaders committing suicide. to take responsibility for real or alleged offences.

On Saturday, villagers from Bongha lined up along a road, crying, as Roh’s coffin passed by. A self-educated lawyer, Roh first made his mark by defending student and labour activists who opposed military dictators and their cronies in industry. He began to gain prominence in the late 1980s when, as a neophyte national lawmaker, he threw his parliamentary nameplate at a military dictator, Chun Doo-hwan, and publicly berated corrupt but powerful business tycoons, including Chung Ju-yung, the founder of the Hyundai conglomerate and a mentor of Lee, a former Hyundai executive.

“More than any politician, Roh challenged the establishment and taboos in South Korea, such as when he declared, ‘What’s wrong with being anti-American?’,” said Kang Won-taek, a political scientist at Soongsil University in Seoul.

But Roh was also divisive. During his five-year term as President, his efforts to free South Korea from its traditional dependence on Washington in its diplomacy unsettled many people, as did his policy of funnelling billions of dollars of unconditional aid to North Korea.

— © 2009 The New York Times News Service


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