By Blaine Harden and Stella Kim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 24, 2009
TOKYO, May 23 -- Former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, a suspect in a corruption scandal that implicated his wife and family, apparently committed suicide Saturday by leaping from a mountain cliff near his rural home.
Roh, 62, died of massive head injuries while hiking in the early morning with a bodyguard. "He appears to have jumped from a mountain rock," said Moon Jae-in, a lawyer who was Roh's presidential chief of staff.
"The suffering caused by me is too great to too many people," Roh wrote in a note found soon after his death. "The suffering in store for the future is too much to bear. The remainder of my life will only be a burden to others."
Roh, who left office last year after a five-year term, was questioned for nearly 13 hours late last month by prosecutors. They were investigating allegations that during his presidency he and members of his family accepted more than $6 million in bribes from a South Korean shoe manufacturer.
At the time of the questioning, Roh did not admit personal wrongdoing but apologized to the country for his family's involvement in the scandal. Prosecutors are looking into a $1.6 million payment to his wife and a $5 million payment to the husband of one of Roh's nieces.
"I am sorry for disappointing you," Roh told reporters. "I have no face to show to the people."
Shortly after Roh's death, Justice Minister Kim Kyung-han announced that "the ongoing investigation regarding the former president Roh will end."
President Lee Myung-bak described Roh's death as "a sad, tragic incident. . . . It is truly hard to believe what happened."
South Korean news reports said that in the three days before his death, Roh missed meals and spent hours alone in the study of his home in rural Bonghwa, about 270 miles south of Seoul.
He had started smoking again and had seemed agitated that his wife had again been called by prosecutors to come to their office, Roh's aides told news outlets. He was also said to be upset that his son, daughter and son-in-law were facing interrogation.
The 164-foot precipice that Roh apparently jumped from, known as Owl Rock, is less than 200 yards from his home.
While on the Saturday mountain hike, Roh distracted his bodyguard by pointing to people walking below, according to a spokesman in the president's office.
When the bodyguard turned back to look at Roh, the former president had jumped, the spokesman said.
Roh, who was from a poor farming family, rose to power as a champion of students and left-leaning citizens who hated the military dictatorships of the 1980s and wanted a more equitable distribution of wealth and economic opportunity.
Roh was also an acerbic critic of the United States and the powerful role it has played since the Korean War in shaping South Korean policy. In his 2002 election campaign, he promised never to "kowtow" to the Americans.
In Washington, President Obama remembered Roh for contributing to a "strong and vital" relationship between the United States and South Korea. He offered his condolences to Roh's family and the Korean people on behalf of the U.S. government.
In a country that pays obsessive attention to educational credentials, Roh did not have prestigious degrees and was notably unpolished. He attended a commercial high school, never received a college diploma and, according to many, did not speak proper Korean.
But he passed the bar exam and made his name defending students who protested military rule.
During his presidency, Roh steadfastly pursued a generous and nonconfrontational policy toward North Korea, the heavily armed and prickly communist state on his country's northern border.
Continuing the "sunshine policy" of his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, Roh traveled in 2007 to Pyongyang for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Critics said Roh's government ignored human rights abuses in North Korea and helped prop up its collapsed centralized economy with gifts of food and fertilizer. Under Roh, South Korea rarely questioned whether its aid went to hungry people or to the military and ruling elite.
In the last years of his presidency, however, a sluggish South Korean economy primarily soured Roh's approval numbers. A majority of voters wanted faster growth, polls showed, and were indifferent to his embrace of North Korea.
In his suicide note, Roh said he wanted his body cremated and a small tombstone erected near his home.
"Don't be too sad," he wrote. "Don't blame anyone. Life and death are identical parts of nature. It's fate."
Kim reported from Seoul.