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Death of a leader

May 23, 2009

Roh Moo-hyun, president of South Korea from 2003-08, has died near his home in the south of the country after falling from a cliff. Police are treating it as a possible suicide.

A passenger reads an extra edition of newspaper reporting death of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun at Seoul Railway Station
Roh Moo-hyun changed South Korean politics, but ultimately disappointed his supportersImage: AP

South Korea's former president Roh Moo-hyun will be chiefly remembered for his accommodating approach in dealings with communist neighbor North Korea and accusations of economic mismanagement while in office.

His legacy has been further marred by his implication in a recent corruption inquiry, the result of confessions by a wealthy shoe manufacturer that he had bribed dozens of officials and politicians as well as Roh's wife when she was First Lady.

"This is a truly unbelievable, lamentable and deeply sad event," President Lee said in a statement.

Roh, 62, died on Saturday, May 23, after falling from a cliff while hiking on the Ponghwa Mountain. Korean news agencies are reporting that he left a note for his family and that police are treating his death as a possible suicide.

He served as South Korea's president from 2003-08, rising to power with vows to break the cycle of South Korea's endemic corruption and put an end to Seoul's old-boys network and money-driven politics.

Troubled administration

Former president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, toasts North Korean leader Kim Jong Il
Roh and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il signed a joint declaration on peace and cooperation in 2007Image: AP

Despite initial high hopes, Roh quickly lost public support upon taking office amid accusations of incompetence in managing the economy. His term was also marked by continual clashes with the media, reckless political gambles as well as increasingly strained bilateral relations with the United States.

Roh, a liberal and former lawyer, was an outspoken supporter of greater engagement with North Korea. He maintained that any kind of sanction against Pyongyang would only make an escalation of tensions more likely, which led some critics to accuse him of appeasement.

Roh's tenure in office saw a historic meeting between him and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2007, which culminated in the signing of a joint declaration on peace and cooperation.

That progress, however, was scrapped by Pyongyang earlier this year, which many blame on the less conciliatory stance towards North Korea by Roh's successor as president, Lee Myung Bak.

Once a rising progressive star

Former president of South Korea Roh Moo-hyun
Roh was a progressive who wanted to shake things up in SeoulImage: AP

Roh was born to a poor family in the small farming village of Gimhae near Busan in the southeast of the country on Aug. 6, 1946. He never attended university, but studied mostly at home to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming an attorney.

The former president made his name as a progressive lawyer, standing up for democracy, human rights and the oppressed.

Roh was once viewed by many South Koreans as a young rising star in the legislature who challenged the establishment, gaining notoriety for his aggressive questioning during a 1988 parliamentary hearing of senior officials alleged to be involved in corruption.

He was married to his childhood sweetheart Kwon Yang Sook. The couple has a daughter and a son.

Editor: Toma Tasovac