SEOUL (Reuters) - Sobbing South Koreans jammed Seoul’s streets on Friday for the funeral of former President Roh Moo-hyun, whose suicide last week has turned him from failed leader to lightning rod for criticism of his successor.
The death has underscored the deep political divisions in South Korea’s young democracy and there were reports of clashes with riot police in the center of the capital, where an estimated 150,000 people had gathered to watch Roh’s funeral procession.
Downtown Seoul was a sea of yellow, a color associated with Roh, who killed himself after becoming snared in a corruption scandal. Tearful supporters tied thousands of balloons to police barriers along the funeral route and waved placards reading: “Today condolences, tomorrow anger.”
During the funeral, a roar of boos erupted from the crowd as footage appeared of current President Lee Myung-bak on giant TV screens paying his respects to his predecessor, many of whose liberal policies he has sought to undo.
Roh left office 15 months ago, widely seen as an ineffective leader, with the landslide win of the conservative Lee interpreted as a rejection of a decade of liberal policies.
But Lee stumbled almost from the start, and he has struggled to push his sweeping economic reform agenda through parliament even though his ruling party has a majority.
His troubles have been compounded by Monday’s nuclear test by an increasingly belligerent North Korea, which has all but severed ties with Lee, who has reversed Roh’s accommodating dealings with the communist neighbor and withheld aid until it rows back on efforts to build an atomic arsenal.
Prime Minister Han Seung-soo described Roh as a man of the people in a eulogy at the formal funeral, held at a Seoul palace.
Police said Roh jumped to his death on May 23 from a cliff behind his home in Bongha Village, leaving a note saying: “The rest of my life would only be a burden for others.”
Even before his body arrived in Seoul on a journey that started 320 km (200 miles) away in his rural hometown, there was scuffling in the capital between riot police and mourners, who blamed Roh’s successor for the death.
After the ceremony at the palace for dignitaries, what was called a “people’s funeral” was held at a central Seoul plaza before Roh’s body went to a crematorium.
“WHAT ARE THEY SCARED OF?”
Roh’s body left his southeastern hometown early Friday and a crush of mourners wept and tossed yellow paper airplanes and flowers in the air as the hearse moved off.
Tens of thousands of riot police mobilized to head off mass anti-government protests, but many mourners said their presence only sparked further anger.
“What are they scared of?” scorned mourner Seo Hyun-sook.
Others, already suffering from the impact of the global economic downturn, worried about a repeat of the mass protests that hit Seoul a year ago, mostly aimed against Lee.
By late afternoon, hundreds are heavily-protected riot police continued to block the center of the capital. An anti-government rally is planned in Seoul on Saturday afternoon.
Roh, 62, had become embroiled in a graft inquiry, the result of confessions by a wealthy shoe manufacturer suspected of bribing several political figures and members of the ex-president’s family.
He was the surprise winner of the 2002 presidential election on a wave of anti-Americanism and support from those who had fought in the 1980s democracy movement.
A self-taught lawyer, Roh’s most celebrated moment was going to North Korea in 2007 for a summit with Kim Jong-il in what was only the second meeting of leaders of the divided peninsula.
Analysts said what appears to be growing friction between the liberal and conservative wings of South Korean politics in the wake of Roh’s death could act as another break on reform.
Next month parliament is due to vote on a range of key bills including banking reform, more flexible employment laws and easing ownership of media companies, all of which are fiercely criticized by the liberal opposition.
“Changing laws and implementing reforms will be slowed down,” said Yun Chang-hyun, a finance professor at the University of Seoul.
Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun and Jack Kim; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Dean Yates