Koreans Say Emotional Goodbye to Ex-Prez

Thousands of South Koreans took to the streets to mourn Roh Moo-Hyun.

May 29, 2009, 6:23 AM

SEOUL, May 29, 2009 — -- Tens of thousands of South Koreans mourning the death of former President Roh Moo-Hyun filled the streets of Seoul for his funeral today, many weeping and waving yellow balloons, the color of his campaign.

Last Saturday, Roh jumped to his death off a mountain cliff in his hometown, Bongha village, 233 miles south of Seoul. He had been questioned by prosecutors regarding $6 million he and his family allegedly took from a businessman who is already in jail for tax evasion and insider trading.

The national funeral, televised live, was held at the 14th century Gyeongbok Palace, in front of the presidential office.

"Roh was a president of the commoners," said Choi Eun-Jeong, 25, wiping her tears. "A big star has fallen." Like Choi, many of the people who showed up in downtown Seoul to pay tribute believe the prosecutors were hounding Roh as part of a political vendetta.

Angry and sorrowful Roh supporters booed with mocking cheers when the current conservative president Lee Myung-bak lay flowers at the alter.

Roh's career had been a political rollercoaster ride. Born in 1946 to a farming family in the southeast of what is now South Korea, Roh's final formal education ended in high school. He later taught himself to be a human rights lawyer, which he practised until he entered politics in 1988 as an elected member of the National Assembly.

In a surprise turnaround in popularity at the end of his campaign, Roh was elected the 16th President of South Korea in 2002 by a narrow margin. He came into office with especially strong support from the younger generation of Koreans for his reformist beliefs and for riding the wave of anti-American sentiment at the time.

Roh's administration pursued a policy of equality rather than growth, taxing the rich and implementing more social reforms for the poor.

His presidency faced a crisis when the conservative parliament voted to impeach him in March 2004, charging illegal electioneering and incompetence. But the constitutional court overturned the move and he was reinstated a month later.

The highlight of Roh's term came when he walked through the demilitarized zone, the first president to do so, into North Korea and met with the reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il.

Perceived as left-leaning and pro-North in his ideology, Roh had a difficult term balancing between the anti-American supporters who elected him and the conservative public majority, which value ties with the United States. In spite of harsh opposition, he deployed troops to Iraq. But the relationship with Washington was complicated when North Korea continued to push its nuclear program.

By the end of his term, in 2007, Roh's popularity had sunk, in line with the Korean economy, to below 20 percent.

After stepping down, he moved to his home in Bongha village. Strings of scandals followed, involving his closest aides and family members, leading to their arrests. The investigations eventually led to his wife, Roh's childhood sweetheart. Last month, he apologized to the public in his blog, admitting his 'household' had received money to settle family debt.

Just before leaving his house early morning to climb the mountain, he left a note to his family that reportedly said, "Don't be sad. Isn't life and death all part of nature? Don't be sorry. Don't blame anyone. It's all fate."

Heejin Kim and Sehee Park contributed to this story.

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