The Seoul Times quoted South Korea’s police as saying that Roh jumped from a hill in his hometown village, around 6:40 in the morning. The former president was immediately delivered to a hospital in Gimhae where he received cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) treatment before he was sent to Pusan National University Hospital, where he died of a cerebral haemorrhage from the serious head injury he sustained.
According to the Associated Press (AP), the former Korean leader left a note on his personal computer about an hour before he left home, saying he was “indebted to too many people; too many people are suffering because of me” and exhorting them not to be sorry. “Don’t blame anybody. It’s destiny”, he wrote, and asked to be cremated.
“Please cremate my body. Please erect a small tombstone for me at the village”, Agence France Presse (AFP) quoted the note as saying.
The South Korean Yonhap news agency reported that as the third former president to be summoned and questioned by prosecutors for alleged corruption, Roh had been accused of receiving at least US$6 million from a businessman, payments that allegedly went to his relatives.
Roh had acknowledged that local shoe manufacturer Park Yeon-Cha, a longtime supporter arrested last year on graft and tax evasion charges, 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 earlier said that Roh’s wife, Kwon Yang-Sook, received $1 million, Roh’s son $5 million and his daughter $400,000.
Roh denied personal ties to the scandal, claiming that he did not know about the transactions until after he retired. Roh had been put under mounting stress from the ongoing probe, Yonhap quoted his aides as saying, especially after his elder brother and several political confidants were recently placed under arrest on separate corruption charges.
Roh himself was summoned to Seoul and grilled for some 13 hours last month. “I have no face to show to the people. I am sorry for disappointing you,” he said before turning himself over to the prosecutors who grilled him about the allegations.
Roh’s wife, who lost her consciousness shortly after confirming the identity of her husband at the National University Hospital, was supposed to be summoned to Seoul Prosecutors’ Office later in the day yesterday and, according to AFP, the prosecutors were considering issuing an arrest warrant.
Analysts believe that the former president lost his “Mr Clean” image as he and his family members were placed under investigation for the alleged bribery scandal. South Korean media, particularly the conservative dailies, have been vying for the coverage of the case since the scandal became known.
Kim Dae-Jung, Roh’s predecessor as president, who expressed “great shock and sorrow”, was reported to have said that, “Allegations concerning his family members have been leaked to the press every day. He was probably unable to bear the pressure and tensions any longer”.
Kim also said: “I’ve lost my life-long companion, with whom I took part in struggles for democracy and shared 10 years of a democratic government”.
Hundreds of Roh’s supporters and lawmakers of the main opposition Democratic Party denounced prosecutors for what they called an “unreasonable and indiscriminate” investigation into the Roh family, Yonhap reported. They also expressed anger at media organisations for what they termed biased reporting.
Some 800 supporters gathered at an altar outside Deoksu palace in central Seoul. Mourners, some sobbing, laid flowers before a large photo and burnt incense.
President Lee Myung-Bak, who received a report on Roh’s death while he was in a summit meeting with the visiting president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, expressed deep condolence over the sudden death of his predecessor, calling it a national tragedy.
“It is truly hard to believe what happened. It is a sad, tragic incident,” the president was quoted as saying.
Described by Yonhap as a self-taught human rights lawyer who had a somewhat turbulent political career, Roh Moo-Hyun was the 16th president of South Korea and the first to be impeached—in 2004, but he was reinstated after two months of suspension. He held the position from February 25, 2003 to February 25, 2008.
Roh’s pre-presidential political career, according to The Seoul Times, focused on human rights advocacy for student activists in South Korea. His electoral career later expanded to a focus on overcoming regionalism in South Korean politics, culminating in his election to the presidency. The election was strongly influenced by activists on the Internet.
Roh’s election was notable for the arrival to power of a new generation in Korean politics, the so-called 386 Generation (i.e. people in their 30’s when the word was coined, who had attended university in the 80’s, and who were born in the 60’s). This generation had been veterans of student protests against authoritarian rule, and advocated an assertively nationalist line towards the United States and Japan, and a conciliatory approach towards North Korea. They took up many positions on Roh’s staff.
According to The New York Times, Roh 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 the encumbent President Lee, who is a former Hyundai executive.
Despite high initial hopes, however, Roh’s administration quickly became dogged by allegations of incompetence, while Roh’s frequent indulgence in personal clashes with his opponents and critics eroded public support. Conflict would continue throughout his presidency, which was characterised by continuous labour unrest, personal feuds with the media, and diplomatic friction with the US and Japan. Many of Roh’s seemingly reckless political campaigns, including a plan to move the capital, and a plan to form a coalition with the opposition, also fizzled.
A left-wing politician who believed in engaging and reconciling with North Korea, Roh continued his predecessor’s “sunshine policy” toward North Korea, which was abandoned by the incumbent.
Born into a family too poor to send him to university, Roh educated himself and passed the bar exam without having attended law school. In a society where a social status is often determined by a college diploma, his success was admired when he was popular but ridiculed when he was accused of bungling the economy in his later years in office.
Even in retirement, Roh has had both supporters and detractors galore. Each day, bus loads of supporters and tourists have visited his retirement village, turning him into something South Korea has never seen before: a former president as tourist attraction.
One year and two months after leaving office, Roh became the centre of a bribery scandal. This scandal, the collapse of the “Pro-Roh faction” of politicians, the collapse of the Uri Party and the defeat of its successor, Democratic Party, in the National Assembly, and the defeat of Roh’s designated successor in the presidential elections, marked a decline in the fortunes of the 386th Generation that had brought Roh to power.
Though criticised as standoffish and confrontational by some, he was praised by others as a candid leader who cared for the underprivileged and fought against corruption. Roh was the first South Korean president with an Internet fan club.
Meanwhile the country’s Justice Minister, Kim Kyung-Han, said in a statement that he was “aware that the investigation on former President Roh will come to a close”, Yonhap reported yesterday.