By Young-Joon Ahn
The Associated Press
BONGHA, South Korea (AP) — Bowing deeply and laying white chrysanthemums before his portrait, tens of thousands of mourners journeyed this past Sunday, May 24, to the southern village where former President Roh Moo-hyun killed himself by jumping off a rocky cliff overlooking his home.
But several top officials, including the prime minister, were turned away from the mourning rites for the liberal ex-leader, who had a fractious relationship with conservative opponents. His supporters accuse them of driving Roh to his death and they pelted a bus carrying conservative politicians with eggs and doused lawmakers with water.
The 62-year-old Roh, who relied on hard work to rise from his impoverished youth in rural Gimhae to become president in 2003, died Saturday after jumping from a promontory known as Owl’s Rock that overlooks his home. He left behind a note describing his suffering over corruption allegations and asking to be cremated.
The government and Roh’s family agreed to hold a public “people’s funeral” after a seven-day mourning period, most likely on Friday, former Roh aide Han Hyung-min said.
Roh’s suicide, just 15 months after he left office, came as he and his family faced intense questioning about $6 million given to the Rohs during his presidency by a Seoul businessman implicated in a number of bribery scandals.
The allegations weighed heavily on a man who prided himself on his “clean” record in a country struggling to shake a tradition of corruption. Prosecutors had been grilling Roh, his wife, and their two children since last month.
“What’s left for me for the rest of my life is just to be a burden to others,” Roh wrote in a note on his computer minutes before leaving for the final hike to Owl’s Rock with a security guard.
“Don’t be too sad. Aren’t life and death both part of nature? Don’t feel sorry. Don’t blame anybody. It’s destiny.”
Roh’s suicide stunned the nation of 49 million, which was divided during his presidency between those critical of his outspoken, antiestablishment ways and others who rallied around his efforts to promote democracy, fight corruption, and facilitate rapprochement with North Korea.
Braving a downpour, nearly 80,000 trekked Sunday to Bongha, the village 280 miles (450 kilometers) south of Seoul where Roh had lived since leaving office, to pay their respects at mourning tents erected at the community center, police said. Hundreds of Buddhist monks in gray robes and wide-brimmed hats held a solemn prayer service.
But not all visitors were welcomed. Roh supporters accuse South Korea’s conservative right, led by President Myung-bak Lee and the Grand National Party, of pushing the corruption probe believed to have driven Roh to despair.
Prime Minister Seung-soo Han was turned away. Roh backers hurled eggs at a bus carrying Hoi-chang Lee, the conservative who lost the presidential election to Roh in 2002.
Supporters also reviled National Assembly Speaker Hyong-o Kim, dousing him with water. His aides tried to protect him from the angry onslaught with their umbrellas. Former Grand National Party leader Geun-hye Park, daughter of former President Chung-hee Park, also tried to pay her respects but wasn’t able to reach the mourning site.
The mood on Sunday in Seoul was somber. Many dressed in black and bearing flowers, waited to pay their respects. Many sobbed as they knelt before his smiling portrait.
At a mourning site outside Seoul’s 16th-century Deoksu Palace, more than 16,000 waited in long lines to place white flowers, cigarettes — Roh had recently started smoking — and melons before portraits of the ex-leader.
“I’m really sad. I can feel how much pressure he had been suffering,” said Hye-kyung Moon, a 47-year-old businesswoman, wiping away tears with a handkerchief. “I think he could have endured the pressure if it was leveled against only him, not his family members and aides.”
She, like many others, blamed conservatives for Roh’s suicide.
“The current government pushed this man to death. No doubt about that,” said Moon.
But Young-sik Hong, 71, said the government wasn’t to blame.
“Why are you guys gathering here? Did he do anything to be praised?” Hong, a former government official, shouted at the crowd. “He only killed himself because he was shamed out of the fact that his and his family’s wrongdoing was revealed.”
Scuffles broke out between riot police and Roh supporters collecting signatures for a petition calling for Lee’s impeachment.
Along Seoul streets, mourners affixed yellow ribbons wishing Roh peace.
“We love you. We’ve been happy with you,” some of the messages said. “Please go to heaven and live freely.” ♦
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.