Image: Roh Moo-hyun
Jo Yong-hak  /  Reuters file
Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun had been under investigation in a bribery scandal.
updated 5/23/2009 9:30:24 PM ET 2009-05-24T01:30:24

Embattled former President Roh Moo-hyun — a reformist shamed by a corruption scandal that tarnished his image as a "clean" politician — jumped to his death while hiking in the mountains behind his rural home in South Korea, his lawyer said. He was 62.

Roh was hiking in Bongha village when he threw himself off a steep cliff around 6:40 a.m. Saturday, lawyer Moon Jae-in told reporters in the southern city of Busan. He said Roh left a suicide note.

"Too many people are suffering because of me," he wrote, according to South Korean media.

Roh was declared dead from a head injury, officials at Busan National University Hospital said.

Roh, a self-taught lawyer who lifted himself out of poverty to reach the nation's highest office, prided himself on his clean record in a country with a long history of corruption. He served as president from 2003 to 2008.

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

'Utterly shocked'
The suicide — the first by a South Korean leader — stunned the nation. South Koreans huddled around TV screens at Seoul's main train station and elsewhere watching news broadcasts.

"I was utterly shocked," said Chun Soon-im, 63, of Seoul. "They say 'hate the sin but not the sinner,' and that's how I feel. The investigation must continue and we must get to the truth, but I cannot help feeling sorry for the man and those left behind."

Last month, state prosecutors questioned Roh for some 13 hours about allegations that he accepted more than $6 million in bribes from a 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 Roh said April 30 before speaking to prosecutors.

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

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

Several of Roh's former aides and associates have also 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 sentenced last week to four years in prison in another bribery scandal.

Justice Minister Kim Kyung-han, expressing "surprise and grief," declared the investigation into Roh closed. Roh supporters and aides have claimed the probe was politically motivated by conservative opponents.

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

'Burden to others'
Roh — who after leaving office moved back to his hometown of Gimhae, some 280 miles (450 kilometers) south of Seoul — went for a walk in the mountains behind his house. He was accompanied by a security guard, Busan police said.

Part way up, Roh hurled himself off a 100-foot (30-meter) -high cliff known as Owl's Rock, the Yonhap news agency said. Police said they were still investigating the circumstances of Roh's death.

"What's left for me for the rest of my life is just to be a burden to others," he said in his note, according to media reports. "Don't be saddened too much. Aren't life and death all a fragment of nature? Don't feel sorry. Don't blame anybody. It's destiny."

Roh, thought to be in good health, hinted in the suicide note that stress had taken its toll, saying it was hard for him to even read and write. He asked to be cremated and a small gravestone erected near his home, the reports said.

Busan police said they could not confirm the contents of the note.

Roh's death was a tragic end for the son of farmers who never attended college but managed to pass the country's bar exam in 1975 by teaching himself law.

He built his reputation defending students accused of sedition under previous military-backed administrations, and once was arrested and his law license suspended for supporting an outlawed labor protest.

His political career took off with his election as a liberal lawmaker to the National Assembly in 1988. Roh's ascension to the presidency came in 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 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 two countries that technically remain at war.

Though criticized as standoffish and confrontational by some, he was praised by others as a candid leader who cared for the underprivileged and fought against corruption. Roh was the first South Korean president with an Internet fan club; supporters flooded Roh's Web site Saturday with condolences.

But in 2004, Roh urged voters to support candidates from his Uri Party — a violation of political neutrality laws. He became the first South Korean president impeached over the violation, but was reinstated several months later after a court ruled against the impeachment.

"He shocked us twice: first, by betraying our trust in him as the keeper of justice when it was revealed that he'd received the illegitimate money; now, in showing that he was not even responsible enough to face the consequences of his action," said Kim Hye-jung, 35, of Seoul. "As a supporter of the values he stood for, I feel greatly let down."

Roh is survived by his wife, Kwon Yang-sook, son Ron Gun-ho and daughter Roh Jeong-yeon. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.

More on: South Korea

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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