Anger and sadness punctuate Roh’s funeral

Friday’s headline in Seoul’s Kyunghyang Newspaper quotes former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung announcing that the nation’s democracy is regressing, as up to a million have gathered in the capital to mourn the death of his successor Roh Moo-hyun. Many blame the current leader.

The air is charged here as riot police have turned out in droves to contain the masses turning out for the late leader’s state funeral, the second highest ever to be given in South Korea. Enormous screens project the funeral proceedings for those unable to enter the grounds of the ancient Gyeongbok Palace, where the ceremony is being held.

A young man who like many gathered here wears a yellow ribbon around his neck in honor of Roh, points at the police phalanxes that line Jongno, a major boulevard leading past City Hall to the gates of the palace. “This is supposed to be a public funeral,” he says, “but obviously it isn’t.” Yellow was the color used during Roh’s 2002 presidential campaign.

An officer squatting in the shade of a nearby alley puts the number of police dispatched in the tens-of-thousands, his face a mixture of fatigue and anxiety at the hours ahead. Many say mourners have held back their anger out of respect for the ceremony but warn of clashes once it ends.

Banners flying above the crowds read “Rest in Peace” on one side, while on the other “Lee Myung-bak out!”

Inside the palace Prime Minster Han Seung-soo, who was turned back days earlier by crowds of Roh supporters while visiting the late leader’s rural residence, addresses a crowd of dignitaries and ordinary citizens. “We have gathered here today to bid goodbye to former President Roh Moo-hyun who spent his life fighting for human rights, democracy and the destruction of authoritarianism — a true ‘people’s president.’”

Meanwhile, an opposition lawmaker verbally assaulted President Lee as he approached to lay a flower upon Roh’s body. “You’re a political murderer,” shouted Baek Won-woo of the Democratic Party before being hauled out by security, according to Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

The succession of events that have transpired in recent days has been truly mind boggling, even for a nation long used to political and social crises. Minutes before the funeral commenced, reports emerged that Chinese fishing vessels off the peninsula’s west coast were fleeing the area in expectation of a possible military clash with North Korea

On the morning of Saturday, May 23, Roh, 62, who served as president from 2003 to 2008, leapt from a cliff above his rural home some 450 km southeast of Seoul. A number of questions surround the circumstances of his death, however, including conflicting statements by a security detail with Roh at the time of his death, suspicions that have only fueled a sense of insecurity and anger here.

As news of the tragedy spread, with citizens across the country turning out to express their grief and shock, North Korea conducted a nuclear test followed by several test-firings of short-range missiles. Then it announced it was scrapping an armistice agreement signed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War after Seoul made public its decision to join a U.S. led anti-proliferation campaign largely known to target the North.

Yet despite the chill northerly winds, the gathering storm here seems focused more on Roh’s death and the responsibility born by the current Lee Myung-bak government. A wreath sent in Lee’s name to Bongha Village, where Roh had taken up farming after retiring from office, was destroyed by the late leader’s supporters.

Lee, who took office in February of 2008 from an embattled and at the time unpopular Roh, overturned many of his predecessor’s policies, including generous aid to the North. He has also presided over a string of controversies involving police crackdowns of public protests, starting with last summer’s anti-U.S. beef rallies and more recently the death of several squatters at the hands of a police swat team in January.

In the weeks leading to Roh’s death, state prosecutors had stepped up their investigation into allegations that Roh had received $6 million in bribes from a local businessman. The probe, which culminated in an unprecedented ten hour grilling of Roh, was widely perceived to be politically motivated by Lee’s government.

These and other incidents have fed into a growing sense of a more draconian style of leadership under Lee, who ironically fashioned himself after the country’s first military ruler Park Cheong-hee. Park helped transform South Korea from an East Asian backwater to a global economic powerhouse, though at the cost of political freedom.