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South Koreans mourn late president

Hundreds of thousands turn out for the funeral of Roh Moo-hyun, as tensions escalate.

People bid farewell as a hearse carrying a coffin with the body of deceased former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun moves on a street in Seoul May 29, 2009. (Lee Jae-Won/Reuters)

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.