SEOUL — Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, a onetime human rights lawyer who was under investigation for allegedly accepting millions of dollars in bribes during a five-year term in office that ended last year, died today after a fall near his home outside the southern city of Busan, police said.
Roh, 62, had been on an early-morning hike with an aide. News reports said he was found unconscious and suffering from a severe head injury about 6:50 a.m.
He was pronounced dead hours later.
The Yonhap news agency reported that Roh had left a suicide note, but officials did not immediately confirm that.
The office of Roh's successor, Lee Myung-bak, said it was investigating the death and declined to comment.
"We are still trying to find out the exact cause of his death and will make an official response after we make a complete assessment of the incident," an unidentified official told reporters. An autopsy was pending.
But Yonhap quoted Moon Jae-in, the lawyer representing Roh in the bribery case, as saying that the former president "jumped off the mountain" near his home while being escorted by a bodyguard and had "left a brief death note for the family."
Local news media quoted aides to Roh as saying that he jumped from a large rock while on the hike. They also published what they said were quotes from the suicide note, reading in part: "It has been really difficult. I have made it difficult for many people. I can't read books. Don't resent. Isn't life and death one? Cremate."
He also reportedly requested that a small tombstone be erected in his hometown.
Politicians and observers said they were shocked by the news.
"This is the most unfortunate and tragic event in the history of the South Korean presidency," said Choi Jin, head of the nonpartisan Institute for Presidential Leadership.
Roh had spent the last few months under a cloud of suspicion after evidence surfaced that he had solicited $6 million in bribes, allegedly paid to his wife and son, from a shoe magnate.
Roh had campaigned for the presidency pledging to clean up corruption in South Korean politics.
He denied any involvement in influence peddling during his term, but he became the third president since 1995 to face a corruption investigation after leaving office.
Prosecutors had been expected to indict the former president soon.
The former head of state acknowledged that his wife accepted $1 million from footwear maker Park Yeon-cha but said the money was not a bribe.
He characterized the $5 million his son got from Park as an investment loan.
Even so, he apologized for his actions in recent postings on his website.
"What I have to do now is bow to the nation and apologize," he wrote last month. "From now on, the name Roh cannot be a symbol of the values you pursue. I'm no longer qualified to speak about democracy and justice. . . . You should abandon me."
Park is an assistant in The Times' Seoul Bureau.