South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, left, inspect honor guard at welcoming ceremony in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2007. (AP/Korea Pool via Yonhap)
SEOUL, South Korea -- Mourners in black, heads bowed and shedding tears, gathered Friday in the courtyard of an ancient palace for the funeral of ex-President Roh Moo-hyun six days after he leaped to his death while being investigated in a deepening corruption probe.
Hundreds of thousands more filled the streets and a plaza in central Seoul awash in yellow, Roh's campaign color, to watch the funeral on large monitors as riot police sought to quell any protests by Roh supporters who accuse his conservative political opponents of driving the liberal ex-leader to his death.
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 tradition 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 known 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 "lived a life dedicated entirely to human rights, democracy and fight against authoritarianism," Prime Minister Han Seung-soo said. "Our people won't forget what you accomplished for the country and the people despite a number of hardships."
He called Roh "a true people's president, and said all South Koreans were grieving "with heavy hearts."
Roh's suicide has focused anger on President Lee Myung-bak, the conservative who succeeded Roh last year, whose administration supporters accuse of pushing the probe in what a Roh aide called "political revenge." At a subway station near City Hall, the walls were covered with posters of Roh accusing President Lee of driving Roh to his death with the investigation.
Opposition lawmakers jeered Lee as he and his wife approached the altar to pay their respects Friday.
"President Lee Myung-bak, apologize!" opposition lawmaker Baek Won-woo yelled, jumping to his feet and cursing Lee before security guards hauled him away. "This is political revenge, a political murder," he shouted.
A somber Lee looked back momentarily and hesitated before laying a white chrysanthemum on the altar and bowing before Roh's portrait. Lee had called Roh's death "tragic" upon learning of the suicide Saturday.
The mounting anger 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. At the United Nations, key world powers were discussing a new resolution to rein in the defiant North.
At the courtyard of the stately 14th-century Gyeongbok Palace, a 2 1/2-meter-tall portrait of a smiling Roh sat in a bed of 1 million chrysanthemums laid in the shape of a Rose of Sharon, South Korea's national flower. Roh's suicide note, in which he begs his family: "Don't be too sad" and explains his unbearable suffering, was read aloud and shown during the funeral.
Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns chanted prayers as part of the multifaith ceremony reflective of South Korea's changing modern history, where Confucian mourning traditions mix with Christian and Buddhist rites.
Roh's prime minister, Han Myung-sook, apologized for "not protecting" the late leader.
"We are sorry, we love you and we were happy with you," said Han, South Korea's first female prime minister, her voice trembling with emotion. "Please rest in peace."
After the funeral, Roh's coffin was loaded back onto a hearse bearing his portrait for the half-mile (less than 1 kilometer) procession down Seoul's main boulevard to City Hall, where scores of mourners were gathered for a "people's ceremony."
His death triggered a wave of grief across South Korea. About 1 million mourners made the pilgrimage to Roh's rural hometown to pay their respects. Some 140 mourning sites set up across the nation drew an additional 2 million people, reports said, with South Koreans lining up for hours to leave notes and messages, some sad, others angry toward Lee.
"I'm very sad because South Korea's best political figure has died, and I could not protect him during his era," said Kim Jin-ah, 23, a college student sitting on the grassy field outside City Hall.
Earlier Friday, villagers in Roh's hometown of Bongha tossed yellow paper airplanes as the hearse blanketed with white chrysanthemums headed north to Seoul for the funeral.
Roh's body was to be cremated later Friday. Roh, in the note to his family, asked that he be cremated and a small gravestone erected near his home.
At City Hall, mourners wearing yellow paper hats and clutching yellow handkerchiefs held balloons saying: "The president is in our hearts."
Some held signs reading: "You will be my president forever."