Sunday, May 24, 2009

South Korean Ex-President Roh Jumps to Death Amid Bribery Probe

Former South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, grilled by prosecutors last month in a bribery investigation, died after leaping from a mountaintop, leaving what appeared to be a suicide note to his family.

Roh, 62, jumped from the 30-meter (100-foot) Owl Rock atop Mount Bonghwa during an early morning hike yesterday, and was pronounced dead at Pusan National University Hospital, Lee Woon Woo, chief of South Gyeongsang Police, said at a televised briefing.

Roh, who boasted his 2003-2008 administration was South Korea’s cleanest, last month became the third president to be questioned in bribery probes, after writing on a Web site that his wife, Kwon Yang Suk, received money to pay family debts from a businessman later charged with tax evasion and insider trading.

“This is an overwhelming shock for the public,” said Kim Meen Geon, professor of politics at Kyunghee University. “It could lead to criticism that the current administration let prosecutors proceed unchecked in their investigation.”

President Lee Myung Bak of the conservative Grand National Party, who succeeded Roh in February 2008, never commented officially on the investigation of Roh and has been adamant about upholding principles of law and order

“This is hard to believe,” Lee said in a statement on his official Web site. “It’s very sad and lamentable.” Prime Minister Han Seung Soo expressed shock and sadness at the start of an emergency Cabinet meeting today.

Lee will need to consider how to deal with the shock and public reaction, Kyunghee University’s Kim said.

‘Ultimate Protest’

“Suicide in Korea is sometimes regarded as the ultimate protest of innocence,” said Hwang Sang Min, professor of psychology at Yonsei University in Seoul. “This probe would have been a tremendous psychological burden for a president whose legacy was based on a ‘clean administration.’”

Former Presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo received presidential pardons in 1997 after they were found guilty of creating slush funds and inciting a coup.

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso said he was taken aback at the news of Roh’s death, offering “my sincere condolences and prayers,” according to a Jiji Press report.

Roh’s attorney, Moon Jae In, said earlier today the former president left a note to his family.

‘Greater Burden’

“I have caused so much pain to so many people,” Roh said in a note saved on his computer before he left home, KBS Television reported. “My remaining life could only become a greater burden for others.”

Roh “was unconscious and not breathing when he arrived,” hospital chief Park Seung Wan said. “Skull fracture and cerebral contusion appear to be the immediate cause of death.”

Roh’s wife Kwon fainted when relatives who identified Roh told her he was dead. She was admitted to the same hospital where her husband’s body is being kept, MBC Television reported.

Prosecutors had been discussing the possibility of summoning Kwon for a second time next week.

Kwon took money from Park Yeon Cha, 63, chairman of Taekwang Industrial Co., a shoe manufacturer with plants in South Korea, China and Vietnam. Park was indicted last year on charges of evading 24 billion won ($18 million) in taxes and insider trading. Prosecutors expanded the probe after he named lawmakers he said he had bribed.

“I understand the ongoing investigation on Roh will be terminated,” Justice Minister Kim Kyung Han said in an e-mailed statement immediately after the news of Roh’s death. Prosecutors declined to comment on whether the probe would end.

Self Educated

Roh, born to a farming family in a small village near Busan, was the rare politician in South Korea to have never attended university. He studied on his own to become a judge and then a lawyer, opening his own firm in 1978 to specialize in human-rights cases. That often led to clashes with the military regime at the time, and Roh was jailed for three weeks in 1987.

Elected to the National Assembly in 1988, Roh garnered a reputation for aggressive questioning of senior government officials involved in corruption cases. He also served as minister for maritime affairs in 2000-2001.

The outspoken lawmaker won the presidential election in 2003, riding a wave of popularity partly generated by an active Internet campaign.

Roh’s approval rating plummeted as economic policies including a crackdown on real-estate speculation failed to win public support. He also waged a war of words with domestic newspapers, which daily criticized the president’s actions, policies, and even a plastic surgery procedure on his eyelids.

Roh continued the policy of engagement with North Korea, initiated by his predecessor, Nobel laureate Kim Dae Jung, and met Kim Jong Il in 2007 in South Korea’s second summit with the North Korean leader.