Angry S. Koreans Mourn Ex-President

Mourners of the late South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun took to the streets Friday, some of them pelting police with projectiles and booing President Lee Myung-bak as he participated in public services for his predecessor. Roh's supporters believe Lee hounded Roh to take his life.

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South Korea is confronted by crises both inside and out. North Korea has test-fired yet another missile and made more dire warnings of conflict. But today, the focus was domestic. The nation held a public funeral service for its ex-president, who committed suicide six days ago.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, the ceremony set the stage for emotional clashes over the direction of the nation's young democracy.

(Soundbite of singing crowd)

ANTHONY KUHN: Central Seoul ground to halt around noon as President Roh Moo-hyun's hearse wound its way past ancient palaces and weeping, singing crowds. Kim Yong Yun(ph) is a student at Seoul's Chung-Ang University. Like many in the crowd, she felt a great sense of injustice and regret at the news that Roh had thrown himself to the death from a mountain near his home.

Ms. KIM YONG YUN: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: I feel the current government drove Roh to commit suicide, she says. I feel guilty that we didn't speak up against the current administration's misdeeds, and that we voted for President Lee Myung-bak, who then hounded Roh to kill himself. Roh's reputation for clean hands was sullied by allegations that he and his family took more $6 million in bribes from a businessman. But Roh's supporters say President Lee Myung-bak used prosecutors and the media to bring Roh down in a case of political revenge.

(Soundbite of television show)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Korean television showed opposition politicians jeering President Lee Myung-bak as he laid flowers at Roh's funeral service. They accused Lee of the kind of political skullduggery that marked Korea's cold war decades of rule by military dictators. Businesswoman Lee Yun Hee(ph) remembers Roh Moo-hyun as a self-taught human rights lawyer who challenged the dictators. And then as president from 2003 to 2008, shook up the country's political culture.

Ms. LEE YUN HEE: (Through Translator) He did away with pomp and pretense. He fostered a culture of Internet-based transparency. And he refused to use his party as his personal instrument of power. He stood independent.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of chanting)

KUHN: The crowds of anti-government demonstrators who mobbed city hall and scuffled with riot police, seemed to take little notice of North Korea's test firing another missile today - its sixth such launch this week.

Pyongyang also warned of unspecified defensive moves, if the U.N. Security Council sanctions it for its most recent nuclear test on Monday. But no supporters blame this too on Lee Myung-bak, who replaced Roh's Sunshine Policy of engagement with the North with a much tougher line. Jo Suk Yung(ph) took the day off from work at an advertising company to attend Roh's funeral.

Ms. JO SUK YUNG: (Through Translator) If Roh were still alive and in office, this country's economy and democracy would both be more advanced. The current government has no idea what to do. It's not working to unify the country.

KUHN: North Korea has reserved plenty of venom for Lee Myung-bak. And experts point out that Pyongyang's recent weapons testing is aimed at Seoul, as well as at Washington. But to many South Koreans, a return to their own authoritarian past seems a much realer and scarier threat than any of the saber-rattling coming from north of the border.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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Correction June 1, 2009

We incorrectly said that "Roh [Moo-hyun] lost the last election to Lee [Myung-bak] primarily over South Korea's sagging economy." In fact, Roh was limited to one term by South Korea's Constitution.

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