Ex-Prez of S. Korea dies in apparent suicide

SEOUL: Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, embroiled in a broadening corruption scandal, jumped to his death while hiking in the mountains behind his rural southern home, his lawyer said. He was 62.

Roh had been hiking in the village of Bongha on Saturday morning when he threw himself off a mountainside rock, lawyer Moon Jae-in told reporters. In a suicide note left for his family, Roh called life "difficult" and apologized for making "too many people suffer," a TV report said.

Roh was rushed to a hospital in the nearby port city of Busan around 8:15 a.m. (2315 GMT) and died around 9:30 a.m. (0030 GMT) from head injuries, officials at Busan National University hospital said.

The lawyer confirmed that Roh left a "brief" suicide note for his family. Investigators have not seen the note, a Busan police official said. He did not give his name, citing department policy.

MBC television said the note asked that his body be cremated.

The apparent suicide — the first by a modern South Korean leader — shocked the nation.

President Lee Myung-bak said Saturday the news was "truly hard to believe" and called Roh's death "sad and tragic," presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said.

Many gathered around TV monitors at Seoul's main train station watching broadcasts of the news.

"I'm heartbroken. I can't imagine how much pain he was in," said Park Kyung-hee, 46, in downtown Seoul.

Roh, a former human rights lawyer who served as president from 2003 to 2008, prided himself on being a "clean" politician in a country with a long history of corruption.

But he and his family have been ensnared in recent weeks in a burgeoning bribery scandal.

Last month, state prosecutors questioned Roh for some 13 hours about allegations that he accepted more than $6 million in bribes from a detained South Korean businessman while in office — accusations that deeply shamed him.

"I have no face to show to the people. I am sorry for disappointing you," an emotional-looking Roh said April 30 before undergoing questioning by prosecutors.

Roh acknowledged that his wife took $1 million from Park Yeon-cha, head of a local shoe manufacturer, but suggested it was not a bribe. He also said he was aware that Park gave another $5 million to a relative but said he thought it was an investment. Prosecutors suspect the $6 million eventually was conveyed to Roh.

Several of Roh's former aides and associates also have been investigated on suspicion of taking money from Park, who was indicted in December on separate bribery and tax evasion charges. Roh's elder brother was indicted in December for his alleged involvement in a separate bribery scandal.

Roh denied the allegations against him during questioning, prosecution spokesman Cho Eun-sok said.

Prosecutors expressed their condolences Saturday and said the investigation will be wrapped up soon, MBC reported.

Roh — a native of Gimhae, located 280 miles (450 kilometers) from Seoul — came from a poor farming family and never went to college. He studied law on his own, passing South Korea's difficult bar exam.

He built a reputation as a lawyer defending students accused of sedition under past military rule, and once was arrested, with his law license suspended, for supporting an outlawed labor protest.

Roh joined the National Assembly as an opposition liberal lawmaker in 1988.

His ascension to the presidency came after a surprise 2002 election win on a campaign pledge not to "kowtow" to the United States, a pledge that resonated with young voters.

He maintained predecessor President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of offering North Korea aid as a way to facilitate reconciliation, holding a summit in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2007, the second such meeting between leaders of the wartime rivals.

In 2004, Roh called on the public to vote for candidates from his Uri Party in parliamentary elections, a violation of the president's political neutrality. The move prompted lawmaker to vote for his impeachment, making him the first South Korean president to be impeached. He was reinstated after two months of suspension, after a court ruled against the impeachment.