SEOUL, South Korea – A sea of wailing mourners filled the streets of Seoul for the funeral Friday of ex-President Roh Moo-hyun, whose suicide six days earlier amid a deepening corruption probe by the government plunged South Korea into grief and anger.
Heads bowed, thousands took part in a solemn ceremony in the courtyard of the 14th-century Gyeongbok Palace before the hearse carrying Roh's body headed to a grassy plaza outside City Hall for emotional public rites attended by a reported 500,000 people. Police in riot gear later moved in as the crush of mourners prevented the hearse from leaving the capital for a few hours.
Police dispatched some 21,000 officers to quell any protests by Roh supporters who accuse conservative political opponents led by President Lee Myung-bak of driving the liberal ex-leader to his death with the bribery investigation.
The criticism comes as Lee faces an increasingly belligerent North Korea, which just two days after Roh's death carried out a nuclear test in a move widely condemned as a violation of international law.
Roh, 62, died May 23 after throwing himself off a cliff behind his home in the southern village of Bongha. Roh, president from 2003 to 2008, recently had been questioned about claims he and his family accepted $6 million in bribes during his presidency.
He denied the bribery allegations, but the accusations weighed heavily on a man who prided himself on his record as a "clean" politician in a country struggling to shake a deeply rooted culture of corruption.
Roh's suicide stunned the nation of 49 million, where the outspoken Roh — a self-taught former human rights lawyer who swept into office on a populist tide — was celebrated as a leader for the people and was a favorite among young South Koreans. Though many were critical of his antiestablishment ways, others rallied around his efforts to promote democracy, fight corruption and facilitate rapprochement with North Korea.
Roh "lived a life dedicated entirely to human rights, democracy and fight against authoritarianism," Prime Minister Han Seung-soo said at the palace funeral. "Our people won't forget what you accomplished for the country and the people despite a number of hardships."
Last weekend, Roh supporters refused to let Han and others from the ruling Grand National Party pay their respects in Bongha, with some dousing politicians with water and pelting them with eggs.
Roh supporters have called the probe against him "political revenge," and posters accusing Lee of driving Roh to his death plastered the walls of one Seoul subway station.
"I've never been so ashamed of being a citizen of this country — a country that kills its own president," said Won Seung-tae, 52, of Seoul. "It feels like we've lost all respect in pushing each other to extremes."
Opposition lawmakers jeered Lee as he and his wife approached the altar Friday to pay their respects.
"President Lee Myung-bak, apologize!" opposition lawmaker Baek Won-woo yelled, jumping to his feet and cursing Lee before security guards hauled him away. "This is political revenge, a political murder!"
A somber Lee looked back momentarily and hesitated before laying a white chrysanthemum on the altar and bowing before Roh's portrait. Lee had called Roh's death "tragic" upon learning of the suicide Saturday.
Roh's death triggered a wave of grief across South Korea, overshadowing the nuclear threat from North Korea's test blast Monday. After his death, about 1 million mourners made the pilgrimage to his rural hometown to pay their respects, and some 2 million more visited mourning sites set up across the nation, reports said.
At City Hall, sobbing mourners wore yellow paper hats and waved yellow handkerchiefs as they watched the funeral on large monitors. The plaza was awash in yellow, Roh's campaign color.
"I respected him. He was a person who never compromised with injustice," said Chang Min-ki, 30, a yellow scarf tied around his neck. "I feel like I've lost everything."
The funeral procession began at dawn in Roh's hometown. Villagers lining Bongha's streets tossed yellow paper airplanes at the hearse blanketed with white chrysanthemums, a traditional Korean symbol of mourning, as the convoy departed for Seoul.
More than 2,500 were invited to the formal ceremony in the courtyard of the stately palace in the heart of ancient Seoul, where Roh's portrait sat on a bed of 1 million chrysanthemums laid in the shape of a Rose of Sharon, South Korea's national flower.
Roh's suicide note, in which he begs his wife and two children: "Don't be too sad" and explains his suffering as "unbearable," was read aloud.
Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns chanted prayers as part of the multifaith ceremony reflective of South Korea's changing modern history, where Confucian mourning traditions mix with Christian, shamanistic and Buddhist rites.
Roh's prime minister, Han Myung-sook, apologized for "not protecting" the late leader.
"We are sorry, we love you and we were happy with you," said Han, South Korea's first female prime minister, her voice trembling with emotion. "Please rest in peace."
The plaza outside the City Hall that Lee built was a sea of yellow with many Seoulites like 32-year-old accountant Baek Sung-dek, who said he was heartbroken over Roh's death, skipping lunch for the public ceremony.
"We will remember you forever. President Roh, you're in our hearts," banners read. "You will be my president forever."
Dressed in traditional hemp mourning outfits, performers carried out Confucian rites designed to send Roh's spirit to heaven and to comfort his soul. As his hearse moved through the crowd, mourners showered it with airplanes and cranes made of yellow origami.
Roh's body was to be cremated outside Seoul before being returned to his home village. But mourners, some screaming "Down with Lee Myung-bak," prevented the hearse from leaving the capital late Friday afternoon. Police in full riot gear began moving in to try and force the crowd to disperse, and the hearse finally drove away.
South Koreans mourned online, too, with some portals carrying "live" broadcasts of the funeral and users flooding bulletin boards and Roh's own Web site with hundreds of thousands of condolence messages.
"I will remember you forever," read one message. "Go in peace," read another.