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Ex-president’s suicide leaves S. Korea with questions about its leaders

He entered the national stage as Mr. Clean, a tireless crusader in a country rife with high-level corruption. He left disgraced, taking his own life amid suspicion that he had been dirtied by the culture of political bribery he had promised to wipe out

The suicide of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Saturday, days before he was expected to be indicted in an influence-peddling inquiry, left the nation grappling with new and troubling questions about the moral character of its elected leaders.

Throughout South Korea, Saturday was a day of mourning for a leader who represented what many considered to be a crucial shift in their country’s politics.

“He was the first real outsider to gain political power in South Korea,” said David Kang, head of the Korean Studies Institute at USC. “This is a guy who didn’t have family connections or a glittering family background. For the country’s conservatives, he was not one of them.”

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Others were dismissive.

“He was a two-faced person,” said Kim Seung-hwan, a senior research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Seoul. “He set himself up as this crusader who was going to clean up South Korean politics.”

“But he left so many questions about the influence of people around him and whether he himself was corrupt. For Koreans, he left behind a lot of frustration.”

Roh, 62, who jumped to his death from a rocky promontory near his home in the southern city of Busan, also leaves a hard-luck legacy of a flawed leader perhaps too human for the righteous agenda he swore to pursue.

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With his emphasis on national sovereignty and independence from superpowers such as the United States, supporters say, Roh symbolized South Korea’s progress toward becoming a more liberal and independent democracy.

But critics say history will not be so kind to Roh, whose five-year term ended last year.

Often contentious and insecure, he lacked the leadership skills to rally a nation that craved a new political direction. He defied conservative wisdom to pursue more lenient policies toward North Korea and questioned his own qualifications for the nation’s top political post.

Roh’s roots were different from those of his presidential predecessors, mostly wealthy men who moved into national politics.

He was born in 1946 to a farming couple in the rural town of Gimhae. In the book “A Collection of Presidential Leadership,” which includes a chapter on Roh, author Choi Jin wrote that Roh’s impoverished childhood shaped his policies as president, such as his drive to raise taxes on the upper middle class.

“His childhood is full of a sense of inferiority and anger and resistance,” Choi wrote. “His mother was full of rancor for being left out [of society] in a mountain village.”

Choi asserted that Roh’s upbringing left him questioning the limits of government authority. Roh preferred group decision-making, a habit of delegating authority that may have helped doom him in the end, critics say.

As a young man, he chose a legal education and later became a human rights lawyer and judge. He eventually entered politics with a strong drive to end regionalism in South Korea.

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Roh was unexpectedly elected president in 2002, prevailing by a 2-percentage-point margin. He won office on a vow to stem the runaway rise in real estate prices, clean up politics and wrest the Blue House, the presidential mansion, from the grip of leaders who represented the interests of big business.

Yet his presidency was marred by missteps. His campaigns to raise taxes and move the capital out of Seoul failed. Critics say Roh coddled North Korea, and he barely survived a campaign to drive him from office on grounds of incompetence.

Still, his administration opened the door for more news media freedom, experts say.

“He was the first president to allow himself to be mocked. On several occasions he was a figure of fun all around,” said Brian Myers, a political scientist at Dongseo University in Busan.

“You look at current President Lee Myung-bak’s efforts as he desperately tries to get control over the press and the Internet, and you appreciate the difference.”

Roh left the presidency in February 2008. Just 14 months later, he was back in the public eye. Authorities alleged that his wife and son had accepted $6 million in bribes from a shoe tycoon in exchange for preferential treatment on various business projects.

Disgraced, Roh denied the allegations. Yet, in the final weeks of his life, the weight of public scrutiny became heavy. In an embarrassing public rebuke last month, he was summoned back to Seoul from retirement for an interrogation by investigators.

Prosecutors were expected to indict Roh in a matter of days. He was the third South Korean president since 1995 to face a corruption investigation after leaving office.

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Experts say Roh died concerned about his legacy.

“He may not have known much about his family’s dealings with people trying to gain favors and was ashamed after the relationship came to light,” said Hahm Sung-deuk, a professor of politics at Korea University. “He killed himself to show how ashamed he was.”

Others don’t see Roh as a victim.

“I don’t think anyone will believe for a minute his wife was taking all that money and he knew absolutely nothing about it,” Myers said.

Guilty or not, Roh may have found the appearance of impropriety too much to bear.

“I suppose that this image of morality and public trust may have been a huge burden,” said Kim Kwang-dong, head of the Nara Policy Institute. “Because now the nation realized that once a symbol of protest and ethics, Roh was no different from conventional politicians.”

Police found a hiking boot and a bloodstained jacket at the scene of Roh’s death. They confiscated a computer on which Roh’s lawyer said he left a suicide note.

In his last written words, the onetime political dragon-slayer asked to be cremated and for a small tombstone to be erected near his home. He also left an epitaph of sorts.

“The pain that I caused to so many people is too great. The pain in the coming days is unfathomable,” he reportedly wrote. “Don’t be sorry. Don’t blame anyone. It’s destiny.”

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john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.


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