By Stella Kim and Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 30, 2009
SEOUL, May 29 -- A national funeral for Roh Moo-hyun, the scandal-tainted former president who killed himself last weekend by jumping off a cliff, brought huge numbers of South Koreans into the streets of Seoul on Friday to weep, to wail and to damn the current president for shaming Roh into suicide.
Roh's spectacular death and his wrenching farewell note have in the past seven days shifted public attention away from his alleged involvement in a bribery scandal. Instead, it has zeroed in on what many in the vast crowd of mourners described as a politically motivated prosecution.
"I could not help but take pity on Roh as I watched how he was manhandled by prosecutors," said Ahn Joon-suk, 52, a banker in Seoul who voted against Roh. "There was no sense of respect and courtesy a president deserves."
In South Korea, where corruption and democracy often go hand in glove, there is a long history of ex-presidents and their families coming under criminal scrutiny from prosecutors loyal to their new leader.
When Roh, 62, leapt to his death last Saturday from a cliff near his rural home, prosecutors had been investigating allegations that during his presidency, he and members of his family accepted more than $6 million in bribes from a wealthy shoe manufacturer. Roh left office last year after a five-year term.
At the funeral in the courtyard of a 14th-century palace, opposition lawmakers jeered as President Lee Myung-bak, Roh's successor, approached the late president's coffin with a flower. Security guards dragged away one opposition lawmaker, Baek Won-woo, who shouted that Lee should apologize for "political murder."
At least 15,000 riot police assembled in central Seoul to control the crowd, whose behavior was mostly solemn and whose numbers were estimated by police at 180,000.
With hats, ribbons, banners and armbands, the mourners turned much of the city center into a undulating sea of yellow, the color Roh chose for his 2002 presidential campaign.
He was a self-taught human rights lawyer who rose to power as a champion of students and left-leaning citizens who opposed the military dictatorships of the 1980s and sought a more equitable share of the country's rising wealth.
But by the time Roh left office early last year, most South Koreans judged his presidency a failure, primarily because of desultory economic growth and what many viewed as his too-generous, too-soft policy toward North Korea.
On the day he died, his wife was scheduled to meet with prosecutors. Roh had earlier spent about 13 hours with them.
He did not admit personal wrongdoing, but the investigation was a humiliating blow to a populist politician who had sold himself to South Koreans as a "clean" advocate for the little guy.
Roh apologized publicly for his family's involvement in the scandal, saying, "I have no face to show the people."
In his suicide note, which was read aloud at the funeral, he wrote: "The suffering in store for the future is unbearable."
Since his death, prosecutors have halted their investigation of the former president and his family.
The great injustice of the investigation, said many at the funeral, was that it hurt Roh's pride.
"People knew that President Roh was a very proud person, and that was the core of his being," said Hong Eun-jung, 32, a physics researcher. "It must have been unbearable for him to be compared to [jailed] military dictators like Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, against whom he fought hard."
Former president Kim Dae-jung, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for seeking reconciliation with North Korea and a longtime political ally of Roh, attended the service and offered to make a sympathy speech. But the government rejected the idea, according to Roh's family.
Earlier this week, Kim suggested that Roh had been hounded to death by prosecutors who had no real evidence.
"If I think about the humiliation, frustration and sadness, I could have made the same decision," Kim told reporters.
South Korean voters in 2007 overwhelmingly rejected the policies pursued by Roh and Kim in the previous decade. Although his detractors were hard to find at Friday's funeral, South Korea's post-suicide embrace of Roh is far from universal.
"He was a bad president who divided the nation, and now that he is dead, he is still a bad president," said Choi Dong-jin, 57, a businessman. "It is ridiculous that people are trying to idolize him."
A poll conducted this week found that about 60 percent of those surveyed felt that Roh's death would deepen divisions in South Korean life. It also found that Lee has the support of just 23 percent of the public and that 70 percent are unhappy with how Lee is running the country.
Roh, meanwhile, has been "reincarnated as the true president of virtue," said Hwang Sang-min, an expert on pop culture and professor of psychology at Yonsei University in Seoul. "Through his death, he has inspired a sense of pride in being a citizen of South Korea."
Harden reported from Tokyo.