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Aide Calls Ex-South Korea Leader Roh's Death Suicide

A South Korean man watches a television screen as news emerges of the death of former President Roh Moo-Hyun at a railway station in Busan, near Roh's hometown of Gimhae, on May 23.
SEOUL (Reuters) -- Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, hounded for weeks over his links while in office to a widening corruption scandal, appears to have jumped to his death in the mountains near his home, a top aide said.

Local media quoted a note left by Roh that seemed to confirm his intention to commit suicide, asking for his body to be cremated and saying "the rest of my life would only be a burden for others."

The likelihood of suicide could boost public sympathy for opponents of his conservative successor, President Lee Myung-bak, whose hard-line policies have largely overturned the more accommodating approach of Roh in key areas such as dealings with prickly North Korea and strike-prone labor unions.

"Former President Roh left his house at 5:45 a.m. and, while hiking on the Ponghwa Mountain, appears to have jumped off a rock at around 6:40 a.m.," Moon Jae-in, who was Roh's presidential chief of staff, said in a nationally televised statement.

The 62-year old former human rights lawyer, whose five-year term ended in February 2008, had recently become embroiled in a mounting graft inquiry, the result of confessions by a wealthy shoe manufacturer that he had bribed dozens of officials and politicians, as well as Roh's wife when she was First Lady.

"This is a truly unbelievable, lamentable, and deeply sad event," President Lee said in a statement issued by the presidential Blue House.

An official with the Busan University Hospital, in the southern port city near Roh's home, told a televised news conference the ex-leader had died from massive head injuries.

Yonhap news agency quoted police as saying Roh had fallen some 20 to 30 meters to his death from Owl Rock. Police said they were investigating the circumstances surrounding Roh's death.

Roh, unexpected winner of the 2002 presidential election, continued many of the policies of his liberal predecessor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae-jung, including those aimed at trying to win over a hostile North Korea with unconditional aid.

But by the time he left office, he and many of his policies had become deeply unpopular.

Lee won the presidency by a landslide on promises to undo the programmes of previous left-leaning governments, including to stop being so generous to the impoverished North unless it gave up developing a nuclear arsenal.

While Roh became only the second South Korean leader to have a summit with his North Korean counterpart, Lee has seen relations between the two Koreas all but freeze in the 15 months since he came to power, with Pyongyang now saying it plans a second nuclear test.