S. Korean ex-president jumps to his death

Shamed by a corruption scandal that tarnished his image as a "clean" politician, Roh Moo-hyun kills himself while hiking.

south korea Roh Moo hyun 248 88 ap (photo credit: )
south korea Roh Moo hyun 248 88 ap
(photo credit: )
Embattled former President Roh Moo-hyun - a reformist shamed by a corruption scandal that tarnished his image as a "clean" politician - jumped to his death while hiking in the mountains behind his rural home in southern South Korea, his lawyer said. He was 62. Roh was hiking in the village of Bongha when he threw himself off a steep cliff around 6:40 a.m. Saturday, lawyer Moon Jae-in told reporters in the city of Busan. In a suicide note left for his family, Roh said life was "difficult" and apologized for making "too many people suffer," a TV report said. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was declared dead from a head injury around 9:30 a.m., Busan National University Hospital said. The apparent suicide - the first by a modern South Korean leader - shocked the nation. South Koreans huddled around TV screens at Seoul's main train station and elsewhere watching broadcasts of the news. "I was utterly shocked," said Chun Soon-im, 63, of Seoul. "They say 'hate the sin but not the sinner,' and that's how I feel. The investigation must continue and we must get to the truth, but I cannot help feeling sorry for the man and those left behind." Roh, a self-taught former human rights lawyer who lifted himself out of poverty to reach the nation's highest office, prided himself on his clean record in a country with a long history of corruption. He served as president from 2003 to 2008. But he and his family have been ensnared in recent weeks in a burgeoning bribery scandal. Last month, state prosecutors questioned Roh for some 13 hours about allegations that he accepted more than $6 million in bribes from a South Korean businessman while in office - accusations that deeply shamed him. "I have no face to show to the people. I am sorry for disappointing you," an emotional Roh said April 30 before speaking to prosecutors. He denied the allegations against him during questioning, prosecution spokesman Cho Eun-sok said. Roh had acknowledged that local shoe manufacturer Park Yeon-cha gave his wife $1 million, but suggested it was not a bribe. He also said he was aware Park gave $5 million to another relative but said he thought it was an investment. Prosecutors suspect the $6 million was eventually conveyed to Roh. Several of Roh's former aides and associates have also been investigated on suspicion of taking money from Park, who was indicted in December on separate bribery and tax evasion charges. Roh's elder brother was sentenced last week to four years in prison in a separate bribery scandal. Justice Minister Kim Kyung-han, expressing "surprise and grief," said in a statement that the monthslong investigation of Roh would be closed. President Lee Myung-bak called Roh's death "sad and tragic," and said it was "truly hard to believe," presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, external relations commissioner for the European Union, said an EU delegation was entering the presidential Blue House for a summit with Lee when they heard the "very sad news." Roh - who after leaving office moved back to his hometown of Gimhae, some 450 kilometers south of Seoul - had gone for an early walk in the mountains behind his house. He was accompanied by a security guard, Busan police said. Partway up, Roh hurled himself off a steep cliff known as Owl's Rock about 100 meters high, the Yonhap news agency said. Police said they were still investigating the circumstances of Roh's death. His lawyer confirmed that Roh left a "brief" suicide note for his family. Investigators have not seen the note, a Busan police official said. He did not give his name, citing department policy. MBC television reported that Roh's note said he wanted to be cremated and a small gravestone erected in his neighborhood. His death by apparent suicide was a tragic end for a man who was the son of farmers and never attended college, but managed to pass the bar exam in 1975 by teaching himself law. Roh built a reputation as a lawyer defending students accused of sedition under South Korea's previous military-backed administrations. He was once arrested and his law license suspended for supporting an outlawed labor protest. His political career began with his election as a liberal lawmaker to the National Assembly in 1988. His ascension to the presidency came after a surprise 2002 election win on a campaign pledge not to "kowtow" to the United States, a pledge that resonated with young voters. He maintained predecessor President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of offering North Korea aid as way to facilitate reconciliation, holding a summit in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2007, the second such meeting between leaders of the two countries that technically remain at war. Though criticized as standoffish and divisive by some, he was praised by others as a candid leader who showed concern for the underprivileged and fought against corruption. Roh was the first South Korean president with an Internet-based fan club. But in 2004, Roh called on the public to vote for candidates from his Uri Party - a violation of political neutrality laws. The move prompted lawmakers to vote for his impeachment, making him the first South Korean president to be impeached. He was reinstated following a two-month suspension after a court ruled against the impeachment. "He shocked us twice - first, by betraying our trust in him as the keeper of justice when it was revealed that he'd received the illegitimate money. Now, in showing that he was not even responsible enough to face the consequences of his action," said Kim Hye-jung, 35, of Seoul. "As a supporter of the values he stood for, I feel greatly let down." Roh is survived by his wife, Kwon Yang-sook, and two children. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.