South Korea’s former leader dies in apparent suicide

South Korea’s former president Roh Moo-hyun, hounded for weeks over his links while in office to a widening corruption scandal, appears to have jumped to his death in the mountains near his home on Saturday, a top aide said.

Local media quoted a note left by Roh which seemed to confirm his intention to commit suicide, asking for his body to be cremated and saying that, alive, he would only be a burden.

The likelihood of suicide could boost public sympathy for opponents of his conservative successor President Lee Myung-bak, whose hard-line policies have largely overturned the more accommodating approach of Roh in key areas such as dealings with prickly North Korea and strike-prone labour unions.

”Former president Roh left his house at 5.45am and while hiking on the Ponghwa Mountain, appears to have jumped off a rock at around 6.40am,” Moon Jae-in, who was Roh’s presidential chief of staff, said in a nationally televised statement.

The 62-year-old former human rights lawyer, whose five-year term ended in February 2008, had in recent weeks become embroiled in a mounting graft inquiry, the result of confessions by a wealthy shoe manufacturer that he had bribed dozens of officials and politicians, as well as Roh’s wife when she was First Lady.

”This is a truly unbelievable, lamentable and deeply sad event,” President Lee said in a statement issued by the presidential Blue House.

An official with the Busan University Hospital, in the country’s southern port city near Roh’s home and where he had been taken, told a televised news conference that the ex-leader had died from massive head injuries.

Yonhap news agency quoted police as saying Roh had fallen about 20 to 30 metres to his death from Owl Rock.

The hospital official said Roh had been taken to a local hospital before the university hospital in Busan, where he arrived with no vital signs and was pronounced dead at about 8.30am.

A South Gyeongsang police officer said police were investigating the circumstances surrounding Roh’s death.

Roh, unexpected winner of the 2002 presidential election, continued many of the policies of his liberal predecessor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae-jung, including those aimed at trying to win over a hostile North Korea with unconditional aid.

Policies unpopular
But by the time he left office, he and many of his policies had become deeply unpopular.

Lee won the presidency by a landslide on promises to undo the programmes of previous left-leaning governments, including to stop being so generous to the impoverished North unless it gave up developing a nuclear arsenal.

While Roh became only the second South Korean leader to have a summit with his North Korean counterpart, Lee has seen relations between the two Koreas all but freeze in the 15 months since he came to power, with Pyongyang now saying it plans a second nuclear test.

Lee, a former businessman, also promised to take a far tougher stance with militant labour unions who, along with the parliamentary opposition, are baulking at employment reforms the government wants to push through Parliament this month.

The government says the reforms bring greater flexibility that are needed to cope with the current economic downturn. Unions see the move as further sapping their strength.

”The death is expected to bolster sympathy for liberal parties, hurting support for the current conservative government,” said Choi Jin, chief of the Institute For Presidential Leadership.

He added that in turn could prompt labour unions to step up protests against the conservative government.

Tarnished
Even the one legacy Roh was admired for, of at least running a clean government, became badly tarnished when he was called in by prosecutors late last month to answer questions over his involvement in a corruption scandal.

Roh complained that a massive media presence following the corruption allegations had turned him into a virtual prisoner inside his home in the town of his birthplace.

Yonhap published extracts of a letter it said was found in his computer which made reference to the huge pressure he had come under and the sense his reputation has been ruined.

”I can’t imagine the countless agonies down the road … The rest of my life would only be a burden for others. I can’t do anything because I’m not healthy. I can’t read books, nor can I write,” the note said.

”Don’t be too sad. Isn’t life and death all part of nature? Don’t be sorry. Don’t blame anybody. It’s fate. Please cremate me. And please leave a small tombstone near home. I’ve long thought about that.”

Roh had admitted that his wife had taken money — alleged to be as much as $6-million — from a wealthy local businessman while he was in office, and had publicly apologised. But he said he had not been aware at the time she had taken the money.

Local media said his wife was due to be called in again for questioning over the affair. — Reuters

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