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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 23:04 GMT
Political scandal dogs South Korea

By Charles Scanlon
BBC correspondent in Seoul

It is nearly a decade since South Koreans were treated to the sight of two former presidents being led into court in handcuffs to answer corruption charges.

The two ex-generals, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, were found to have amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains.

There was shock and outrage at the sheer scale of the bribes.

Roh on video screen, AP
President Roh pledged to get tough on corruption

But there was also optimism about the future - a sense that the entrenched ties between authoritarian rulers and family-owned business groups were finally being broken.

But once again the newspapers are full of stories of shady dealings in basement garages - of politicians accepting shopping bags and apple boxes stuffed with cash.

The allegations have emerged during a furious contest between a beleaguered President Roh Moo Hyun and an opposition determined to finish him off.

Investigation

President Roh Moo-hyun, who made his name as a human rights lawyer during the years of dictatorship, came to office this year promising to clean up the collusive ties between government and big business.

But he has struggled to establish his authority in the face of fierce hostility from a conservative press and the opposition Grand National Party (GNP), which remains the largest party in the National Assembly.

He was further weakened when his own party split up after a feud, leaving him with only a small rump of supporters in the National Assembly.

Then he received a critical blow in October, when a close aide, Choi Do-sul, was arrested - accused of accepting nearly $1m from the SK conglomerate.

Less than a year into a five-year term of office, President Roh started looking like a lame duck.

The President has proposed a national referendum, saying he would resign if the vote went against him.

The proposal was seen as an attempt to reverse his fortunes in one bold move and to turn the table on his opponents. But there are question marks about its legality and it is now far from clear whether the vote will take place.

The opposition is more interested in pressing for an independent investigation into the allegations about political funding.

Choi Do-sul under arrest, AP
A key aide, Choi Do-sul, has been arrested

When President Roh vetoed a bill to appoint a special council, GNP leader Choe Byung-ryul went on hunger strike, sitting on a mat in his office in front of a banner that declared he was "saving the nation".

Hunger strikes were a familiar tactic of the opposition in the dark days of dictatorship. But now they elicit little sympathy from a disillusioned public.

"I've seen so many hunger strikes it doesn't surprise me anymore," said office worker Yu Ho-yol. "They should first reflect on their own wrongdoings before pointing the finger at others."

The current political battles and stalemate are likely to continue at least until parliamentary elections in April - with little prospect of meaningful reform before then.

Choe Byung-ryul himself has admitted that his own party is not so clean. In fact the party's head of finance - after strenuous denials - admitted taking $8 million from the SK group before last year's presidential election.

The absurdity of the situation was intensified when an MP in the President's camp also went on hunger strike to protest against the opposition leader's fast.

Net spreads

All of South Korea's top business groups are now under investigation for amassing slush funds to pay off political leaders. Senior business figures will soon be called in for questioning by the prosecution.

POLITICAL FUNDING ROW
29/9 - Roh quits ruling party due to factional divides
13/10 - Roh proposes referendum on his rule
16/10 - Former Roh aide held on slush fund allegations
21/10 - GNP MP confesses to taking slush money
28/10 - State prosecutors begin inquiry
10/11 - National Assembly votes for independent inquiry
18/11 - LG offices raided as scandal widens
24/11 - Samsung subsidiary offices raided
25/11 - Roh vetoes independent inquiry

The owners of large conglomerates have always presented themselves as innocent victims of politicians' greed. They say they have little choice but to pay up when they receive demands for cash.

But others believe the business leaders are willing co-conspirators, securing business advantages from their payments to the political parties.

With parliamentary elections due in April, the political feuding looks set to continue. The optimists chose to see it as part of the transition to Democracy - a necessary airing of dirty laundry as political institutions mature.

But others despair of progress. The corrupt dealings between political leaders and business tycoons seem almost as entrenched as they were during the days of the generals.


SEE ALSO:
S Korea opposition in protest fast
26 Nov 03  |  Asia-Pacific
S Korea political row deepens
25 Nov 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Embattled Roh seeks referendum
13 Oct 03  |  Asia-Pacific
S Korea slush scandal spreads
22 Oct 03  |  Asia-Pacific
S Korean president quits party
29 Sep 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Roh Moo-hyun
24 Feb 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: South Korea
24 May 03  |  Country profiles


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