SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s former President Roh Moo-hyun, hounded for weeks over links to a 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 “the rest of my life would only be a burden for others.”
The likelihood of suicide could boost public sympathy for opponents of his conservative successor President Lee Myung-bak, whose hardline policies have largely overturned the more accommodating approach of Roh in key areas such as dealings with North Korea and strike-prone labor unions.
“Former President Roh left his house at 5:45 a.m. and while hiking on the Ponghwa Mountain, appears to have jumped off a rock at around 6:40 a.m.,” Moon Jae-in, who was Roh’s presidential chief of staff, said in a televised statement.
The 62-year old former human rights lawyer, whose five-year term ended in February 2008, had become embroiled in a 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,” Lee said in a statement issued by the presidential Blue House.
U.S. President Barack Obama said he was saddened to hear of Roh’s death.
“During his tenure, President Roh contributed to the strong and vital relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea,” Obama said in a statement.
An official at the Busan University Hospital, in the southern city near Roh’s home, told a televised news conference the ex-leader had died from head injuries.
Yonhap news agency quoted police as saying Roh had fallen between 20 and 30 meters to his death from Owl Rock. Police said they were investigating the circumstances.
Roh, unexpected winner of the 2002 presidential election, continued many of the policies of his liberal predecessor, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Kim Dae-jung, including those aimed at trying to win over a hostile North Korea with unconditional aid.
By the time he left office, he and many of his policies had become unpopular.
Lee won the presidency by a landslide on promises to undo the programs of previous left-leaning governments, including to stop being so generous to the poor North unless it gave up developing a nuclear arsenal.
“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.
Police sealed off a plaza in front of City Hall in central Seoul that had been the main staging point for rallies against Lee’s government about a year ago.
Hundreds of tearful mourners gathered at a palace nearby, kneeling down to bow and offer white chrysanthemums, the traditional flower of mourning, to a picture of a smiling Roh wearing farmer’s clothes.
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 apologized. 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.
Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun; Writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Andrew Dobbie