BONGHA, South Korea – Bowing deeply and laying white chrysanthemums before his portrait, tens of thousands of mourners journeyed Sunday 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 of driving Roh to his death. They pelted a bus carrying conservative politicians with eggs and doused legislators with water.
The 62-year-old Roh, who relied on pluck and 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 US 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 country of 49 million, which was divided during his presidency between those critical of his outspoken, anti-establishment 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 450 kilometres south of Seoul where Roh had lived since leaving office, to pay their respects at mourning tents erected at the community centre, police said. Hundreds of Buddhist monks in grey 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 Lee Myung-bak and the Grand National Party, of pushing the corruption investigation believed to have driven Roh to despair.
Prime Minister Han Seung-soo was turned away. Roh backers hurled eggs at a bus carrying Lee Hoi-chang, the conservative who lost the presidential election to Roh in 2002.
Supporters also reviled National Assembly Speaker Kim Hyong-o, dousing him with water. His aides tried to protect him from the angry onslaught with their umbrellas. Former Grand National Party leader Park Geun-hye, daughter of former president Park Chung-hee, also tried to pay her respects but wasn’t able to reach the mourning site.
The mood Sunday in Seoul was sombre. A line at Chogye Temple snaked around the lawn and into the street as Seoulites, many dressed in black and bearing flowers, waited to pay their respects. Many sobbed as they knelt before his smiling portrait.