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South Koreans pay last respects to former leader

world Updated: May 24, 2009 12:24 IST
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Thousands of South Korean mourners paid their last respects on Sunday to former president Roh Moo-Hyun, whose shock death by apparent suicide came as he faced a massive corruption scandal.

Roh's body lay in state in his hometown of Gimhae, a day after the man once known as "Mr Clean" leapt from a mountain, leaving behind a suicide note on his computer.

Thousands of people, many bursting into tears, thronged the altar in his native village, laying flowers and burning incense. Some collapsed as they approached his coffin, as hundreds of Buddhist monks offered prayers.

"Life and death are all parts of nature," Roh wrote in his note. "Don't lay any blame. It's fate."

Mourners also packed the streets around an altar outside a heavily guarded palace in Seoul, as a shocked nation tried to come to terms with the first such event in the history of modern Korea.

World leaders including US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso offered their condolences to Roh's family and the South Korean people.

But some at home were critical of Roh, saying he should have stayed alive to face justice as the third former South Korean leader to be questioned on corruption charges after leaving office.

"That the lawyer-turned-president has chosen such an extreme way in the face of questioning leaves something to be desired," the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial.

"We're concerned that the way the former president died may damage the nation's image and affect the young negatively."
Roh, 62, who was in office from 2003 to 2008 and was credited with striving to make South Korea more democratic, apparently jumped to his death off a cliff near his retirement home early on Saturday.

Police have yet to formally confirm it was a suicide.

The investigation into Roh centred around a payment worth one million dollars to his wife from a wealthy shoe manufacturer, and a payment by the same man worth five million dollars to the husband of one of Roh's nieces. He had apologised for his family's involvement but had not admitted personal wrongdoing. But he acknowledged being tormented by the probe.

"It is truly hard to believe what happened. It is a sad, tragic incident," current President Lee Myung-Bak said through a spokesman.

The government and Roh's family have not publicly disclosed when the funeral will be held.

Roh, a former human rights lawyer, doggedly pursued reconciliation with communist North Korea despite its 2006 nuclear and missile tests, holding a landmark summit with leader Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang in 2007.

Critics said the South gave the North too much for too little in return. A relatively sluggish economic performance, high youth unemployment and soaring property prices also undermined Roh's popularity.

North Korea's official media highlighted the pressure he faced from the investigation.

"Local and foreign media were relating the motives of his death to the psychological burden caused by prosecutors' coercive investigation," the Korean Central News Agency said.