Fallout of Ex South Korea President's Suicide

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Lee Jae-Won / REUTERS

People try to set up a temporary memorial altar as policemen block them from gathering to mourn for deceased former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in Seoul on May 23, 2009

Ever since Lee Myung Bak became president of South Korea in 2008, he has been bombarded by a series of crises. Weeks after Lee's inauguration, tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Seoul over his decision to allow imports of U.S. beef, which had been banned due to concerns about mad-cow disease. Late last year, the global financial meltdown hit Korea especially hard, and businessmen blamed Lee and his policy team for failing to build international confidence in their economy. North Korea has been increasingly threatening during his tenure — rearing its head yet again in Monday's suspected nuclear test. And on top of all that, Lee now has to contend with the political fallout from the tragic suicide of his presidential predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun.

Roh, who served as South Korea's president from 2003 to 2008, jumped from a 100-foot cliff on May 23 while hiking near his home. The 62-year-old former human rights lawyer was apparently driven to this drastic step over allegations of corruption. Prosecutors had grilled Roh for more than 10 hours in late April over claims that he took $6 million from a businessman during his presidency. (Roh had denied the accusations, and he hadn't yet been charged with any crime.)

Roh's death has unleashed tremendous public sympathy for the former president — and ire towards the current one. Tens of thousands of mourners arrived in Bongha, the town in the country's south where Roh retired, to pay their respects in tents set up near a community center. But by Sunday, the solemn scene had become a political protest by Roh's supporters, who accuse the Lee administration of pushing Roh to his death through a vengeful and unfounded corruption investigation. Mourners turned away Han Seung Soo, the current prime minister, when he attempted to join them, and doused Kim Hyong O, speaker of the National Assembly for Lee's Grand National Party, with water.

Lee must now tread carefully — or again find himself on the wrong side of public opinion. As a conservative, he is already highly unpopular with Roh's more liberal political base. Lee reversed many of Roh's initiatives upon taking office, including his soft stance towards North Korea. Hahm Sung Deuk, an expert on presidential politics at Seoul's Korea University, believes Lee must find ways of appeasing Roh's supporters — perhaps through a shake-up at the prosecutors' office — or risk strengthening his opponents. "This will be a very important period for Lee Myung Bak," Hahm says. "If he fails to manage [the public's] concern, people might think [the corruption investigation] was all about political revenge, and this would in turn become a political threat to Lee." (See pictures of the militarized border between North and South Korea.)

Through his dramatic death, Roh is making one final joust against the conservative political establishment he spent his career fighting. Unlike many Korean politicians, he wasn't from a blueblood clan or prestigious university. Born to a poor farming family, Roh passed the very tough Korean bar exam in 1975 even though he never attended college. He rose to prominence in the 1980s after defending student protesters who ran afoul of the then dictatorial regime, and in 2002, surprised his conservative opponents with an upset victory in the presidential election. He brought to office an activist spirit custom made to annoy Korea's political old guard, with a reformist agenda of redistributing wealth to the poor, decentralizing government power, repairing relations with Pyongyang and standing up to Seoul's political patron, the United States.

The trials of managing Korea's fractious democracy, however, sometimes seemed to drive Roh to despondency. Only months after he took office, he professed being "depressed" and he said he felt like "giving up the presidency." Roh had fought against the often-corrupt politics of South Korea and had tried to maintain a "clean" image. The taint of the corruption investigation brought against him this year was, apparently, too much for him to bear and likely led to his suicide. "Too many people are suffering because of me," he wrote in a note left in his home before his death. "What's left for me for the rest of my life is just to be a burden to others."

Roh is only the most recent in a long list of prominent Koreans who have dealt with personal crises in the same fashion. Last October, popular movie star Choi Jin Sil, dubbed the "nation's actress," hanged herself, apparently due to incessant Internet gossip. A year earlier, pop singer U-Nee, unable to cope with the pressures of fame, took her life the same way. In 2003, Chung Mong Hun, son of the founder of the Hyundai group of companies and one of the country's most powerful businessmen, leaped from his 12th-floor office while on trial for an alleged role in transferring money to North Korea.

Sadly, the national propensity towards suicide isn't limited to the famous and troubled. South Korea has the highest suicide rate among the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the problem has been getting worse. Data from the World Health Organization shows that the suicide rate in South Korea doubled between 1995 and 2006, to about 22 deaths per 100,000 people. Social workers blame the high rate on heightened pressure to succeed in South Korea's increasingly wealthy society combined with a breakdown of traditional family support systems. Korean society holds its members to high standards of behavior, and public humiliation is sometimes too difficult for Koreans to handle. "People are feeling a huge gap between their ideals and reality," says Ha Sang Hun, director of LifeLine Korea, a Seoul-based NGO that operates suicide hotlines. "People tend to believe that if they don't realize their expectations, that's the end of things." (Read about suicide in Asia.)

Perhaps that sentiment, too, weighed too heavily on Roh. Despite his lofty goals, many political analysts consider his presidency to have been a failure. His "sunshine policy" towards North Korea produced a summit between Roh and Pyongyang's paramount leader Kim Jong Il in 2007. But even though Roh's administration lavished aid and investment on the Stalinist regime — including the development of an industrial park in North Korea — Pyongyang failed to reciprocate with concessions of its own. Businessmen argue that economic reform generally stagnated under Roh. In 2004, Roh was even impeached by the National Assembly after violating election laws, though the Constitutional Court overturned the legislature's decision. "His goals were too ambitious, and he simply forgot his presidency was only for five years," says Korea University's Hahm. (See pictures of North Korea's rubber-stamp elections.)

Yet Roh always maintained a hardcore following — a following that is now venting against Lee Myung Bak. If Roh will be remembered for anything, it will be for forwarding the worthy cause of Korea's democratization. "He may have not produced any fruits, but he planted a mindset of reform in people's minds," says Yang Seung Ham, a political scientist at Seoul's Yonsei University. "Roh raised people's awareness and showed them how they can voice their rights." If Lee Myung Bak isn't careful, the people will voice those rights against him once again.

— With reporting by Jiyeon Lee/Seoul

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