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Obituary: Roh Moo-hyun

Roh Moo-hyun - photo 1 May 2009
Roh Moo-hyun described mountain climbing as a hobby

Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who has died after falling into a ravine, was a controversial figure whose administration ended last year dogged by scandal and infighting.

At the time of his death, which police are treating as a possible suicide, 62-year-old Mr Roh was under investigation for receiving millions of dollars in bribes from a businessman while in office.

With his relative youth, lowly beginnings and promises to root out endemic political corruption, he seemed when he took power in 2003 to be the new start the country needed.

But his term in office was a rollercoaster ride. His Uri party was hit by scandal and in-fighting, and there was fierce public opposition to several of his policies.

He was even suspended early in 2004, after parliament voted to impeach him over a breach of election rules, but the Constitutional Court later overturned the move and he was reinstated.

Campaigning lawyer

A human rights lawyer by trade, President Roh first made headlines soon after he entered politics in 1988, when he grilled top officials from the previous administration during a special parliamentary hearing on graft.

Candlelit vigil in Seoul on Sunday
Mr Roh's impeachment sparked widespread protests

He had been one of the leaders of the "June Struggle" in 1987, against the dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan. He served a three-week jail sentence that year for abetting striking workers.

Born to poor peasant parents in the south-eastern region of Kimhae, Mr Roh initially studied law as a means of escaping poverty.

But in 1981 his work brought him in contact with a case of human rights abuse which he says changed his aspirations forever.

Mr Roh was asked to defend one of two dozen students arrested for possessing banned literature, for which they were detained and tortured for almost two months.

"When I saw their horrified eyes and their missing toenails, my comfortable life as a lawyer came to an end," Mr Roh is quoted as saying.

Following nationwide protests which pushed Mr Chun out of office, Mr Roh entered politics by winning election to the National Assembly as a member of a pro-democracy party led by the activist Kim Young-sam, who later became president.

Mr Roh was helped to leadership by a public disillusioned with scandal and South Korea's close relationship with the US.

Ironically, it was scandal and political infighting that also blighted Mr Roh's time in office.

Mass defections

Within a year of taking office, Mr Roh and his supporters formed the Uri Party ( which means Our Party).

But in March 2004, parliament voted to impeach Mr Roh for breaching a minor election law, and he was forced into two months of political limbo.

The impeachment came about because the conservative opposition - which at the time dominated South Korea's parliament - said the president had contravened the country's voting rules by openly supporting the Uri party in the run-up to assembly elections.

The move humiliated Mr Roh, worried markets and drove thousands of people onto the streets in protest.

In May the Constitutional Court overturned the verdict, saying Mr Roh had violated the law, but not gravely enough to warrant his removal from office.

The Uri Party made a strong showing in assembly elections that April, and the president emerged in a much stronger position to push his reformist agenda in parliament.

But a series of unpopular decisions, including sending Korean troops to Iraq, a failed attempt to move the capital from Seoul and the continuation of a policy of engagement with North Korea saw Mr Roh's popularity ratings plummet again.

His government was also accused of incompetency over its handling of the economy and in foreign affairs.

Last month, Mr Roh was questioned over allegations that he had taken millions of dollars in bribes from a wealthy businessman. He later apologised for the scandal.

In a statement posted on his website, he admitted his wife received a substantial sum of money from the businessman, but suggested it was not a bribe but a payment to help her settle a debt.

Mr Roh leaves his wife and childhood sweetheart Kwon Yang-sook, a son and a daughter.

He said he enjoyed mountain climbing and bowling. He spent his two months of impeachment reading and hiking around the hills behind his official residence.



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