SEOUL — He was the people’s president. South Koreans flooded the streets of Seoul to see late president Roh Moo-hyun’s funeral on Friday, many taking time off from work or traveling hours to pay their final respects. Roh shocked the country by jumping to his death a week ago in the midst of a corruption investigation.
His supporters, who came in the hundreds of thousands, wore yellow ribbons and held yellow balloons — yellow was the color associated with Roh — and distributed fliers with the words, “You’re our president forever.”
They stood on the downtown streets shoulder to shoulder for hours to see the late president’s hearse pass by. Many shed tears of sorrow but also of anger. Anti-government sentiment has been simmering since Roh’s death, with many accusing the Lee Myung-bak administration of cornering the former leader.
Roh was the only president here to have a visible fan base that continued to support him after he stepped down in 2008. After the news of his death, people stood in line for hours to pay their respects at makeshift altars that sprouted all over the country. The same crowd flocked to the streets Friday.
“I feel like my father has died,” said Kim Eun-kyung, who traveled two hours to the capital. The 36-year-old said Roh was the only leader who truly understood the public.
Roh, a former human rights lawyer and political maverick, was a symbol of hope to many who saw him as a fighter against the rich and powerful.
“People usually crush the weak and go easy on the strong,” said Ha Eun-du, who had been standing in the sun for hours waiting. “He was different.”
When in office, Roh attempted to overturn some of the most deeply rooted practices in the country. He tried to decentralize power from the capital, clean up political bribery and institutionalize ways to counterbalance top-down governance. Critics said his goals were too idealistic.
But Roh does get credit for one thing his predecessors couldn't do: He could relate to the public and bring their voices out.
“He was not an authoritarian president. I guess you can say he put forward a new president model for the people,” said Sejong University political science professor Lee Nam-young.
When Roh entered the presidential race in 2002, many said he came out of nowhere. He had no strong political base within his party but managed to win the support of the internet-savvy younger crowd. People sent in the contents of their piggy banks to make him president.
Roh's relationship with the public is what may have placed additional pressure on him, as his reputation as a clean politician suffered from the corruption investigation that linked him to receiving $6 million in bribes from his closest patron.
But many of Roh's supporters believe the current conservative administration drove the investigation. As people watched the state funeral, which was broadcast from huge flat screens on the streets (the funeral was closed to the public), they booed the current president Lee Myung-bak as he laid a white chrysanthemum at Roh’s altar. Their voices were full of rage.
“You can tell from the passionate mourning on the streets. What Roh left behind is hope for change and a fairer society," Lee Nam-young said.
Hours after Roh’s body had passed through the streets, crowds of mourners remained, as if they were seeking comfort in companionship.
“Down with the dictatorship,” people started yelling as they approached rows of riot police standing in full protective gear blocking off the main road. A brief scuffle broke out between the groups and the police, but soon died down.
Read more about South Korea:
Tearful Roh forever tainted
Eviction and tragedy in South Korea
Serial killings grip South Korea