A sea of wailing mourners filled the streets of Seoul for the funeral Friday of ex-President Roh Moo-hyun, whose suicide six days earlier amid a deepening corruption probe by the government plunged South Korea into grief and anger.
Heads bowed, thousands took part in a solemn ceremony in the courtyard of the 14th-century Gyeongbok Palace before the hearse carrying Roh’s body headed to a grassy plaza outside City Hall for emotional public rites attended by a reported 500,000 people. Police in riot gear later moved in as the crush of mourners prevented the hearse from leaving the capital for a few hours.
Police dispatched some 21,000 officers to quell any protests by Roh supporters who accuse conservative political opponents led by President Lee Myung-bak of driving the liberal ex-leader to his death with the bribery investigation.
The criticism comes as Lee faces an increasingly belligerent North Korea, which just two days after Roh’s death carried out a nuclear test in a move widely condemned as a violation of international law.
Roh, 62, died May 23 after throwing himself off a cliff behind his home in the southern village of Bongha. Roh, president from 2003 to 2008, recently had been questioned about claims he and his family accepted $6 million in bribes during his presidency.
He denied the bribery allegations, but the accusations weighed heavily on a man who prided himself on his record as a “clean” politician in a country struggling to shake a deeply rooted culture of corruption.
Roh’s suicide stunned the nation of 49 million, where the outspoken Roh — a self-taught former human rights lawyer who swept into office on a populist tide — was celebrated as a leader for the people and was a favorite among young South Koreans. Though many were critical of his antiestablishment ways, others rallied around his efforts to promote democracy, fight corruption and facilitate rapprochement with North Korea.
Roh’s body was to be cremated outside Seoul before being returned to his home village. But mourners, some screaming “Down with Lee Myung-bak,” prevented the hearse from leaving the capital late Friday afternoon. Police in full riot gear began moving in to try and force the crowd to disperse, and the hearse finally drove away.
South Koreans mourned online, too, with some portals carrying “live” broadcasts of the funeral and users flooding bulletin boards and Roh’s own Web site with hundreds of thousands of condolence messages.
“I will remember you forever,” read one message. “Go in peace,” read another.