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THE WORLD

South Koreans Ponder Just How Far Corruption Reaches

A widening bribery scandal prompts examination of a give-and-take culture.

By Barbara Demick
Times Staff Writer

January 27, 2004

SEOUL The money used to arrive in apple crates.

Now, it comes by the truckload. The only thing that has changed in South Korea, cynics say, is the size of the container.

As prosecutors dig into the financing of the last presidential election, they're unearthing some unseemly secrets. In the months before the December 2002 contest won by Roh Moo Hyun, about $50 million in illegal contributions changed hands as South Korea's largest corporations tried to curry favor with the political parties. More than a dozen people assemblymen, party hacks and moguls have been arrested so far.

Because South Korean currency comes in such small denominations that it is a logistical feat to make a payoff of any consequence, the scandals have taken on a quality of high farce.

When LG Corp., one of the country's largest conglomerates, allegedly gave $12 million to conservative opposition candidate Lee Hoi Chang, a truck stuffed with cash was reportedly left at a highway rest stop and the keys given to one of the politician's aides. Hyundai Group allegedly delivered its money using a sedan packed so tightly with cash it could barely be driven.

The spectacle has left voters clucking their tongues in indignation. But it also has prompted some serious soul-searching among the South Korean public about the role that under-the-table payments play in almost every aspect of life, be it academia or health care.

It used to be common in South Korea for parents to give gifts to their children's teachers to secure front-row classroom seats dating from a time when most people were too poor to buy eyeglasses for near-sighted children or for businessmen to prepare envelopes of cash for journalists before being interviewed.

Some of these practices have died out as South Korea has become a more affluent and democratic society, but people here believe that their country still has a long way to go. Transparency International, the worldwide corruption monitoring organization, lists South Korea as one of the countries along with Russia, China and Italy where bribes are most likely to be paid in a business transaction.

"There has always been a lot of cash-giving and gift-giving in this society," said Michael Breen, author of the book "The Koreans." "People always seem to need staggeringly large sums of money to get things done. Everybody gets caught up in it."

Inspired by the political scandals, the South Korean newspaper Munhwa Ilbo has been running a series in which ordinary people confess their own acts of corruption.

In one article, a Seoul building inspector describes how his department takes 10% of construction costs in return for licenses, while a father confides that he and his wife bribed a college soccer coach to get their son onto a team. A school headmaster admits paying bribes to get a promotion.

"If we want to have a corruption-free society, we need to face up to the fact that it is not just in politics. It has spread into many fields," said Kim Jong Ho, associate editor of Munhwa Ilbo.

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Grass-Roots Efforts

Several civic groups have sprung up with the aim of rooting out corruption. One is trying to abolish the May 15 holiday of Teachers' Appreciation Day which some believe can be an occasion for inappropriate gift-giving. Another erected a scale model of the national legislature in downtown Seoul and threw buckets of water on it in a symbolic cleansing of the political system.

There are so many corruption investigations underway right now that the front pages of the newspapers are dominated by photographs of the accused cringing in embarrassment.

The South Korean vice president of the International Olympic Committee, Kim Un Yong, is under investigation regarding allegations that he accepted bribes from businessmen who wanted seats on the committee and that he passed bribes to North Korean officials in return for their participation in sporting events in the South.

This month, IBM Korea executives were charged with bribing local government officials and purchasing agents to buy its equipment.

But the biggest investigations concern the cozy relationships between politicians and big business that date back to the 1970s, when South Korea's authoritarian rulers pushed for rapid development of the country.

Part of the problem is the clash between the old mores and the ethical standards expected in a modern democracy. New campaign-finance laws put strict limits on what politicians can raise and spend, but by tradition they need huge amounts of cash.

People who attend campaign rallies or distribute leaflets expect to be paid, while incumbents must also fork out generous cash gifts to well-connected constituents at weddings and funerals if they are to retain their support.

"I'm ashamed to admit it, but in the rural parts of this country some people are selling their votes. As a politician, you have to have a lot of money. There is no way to operate within the legal limits and stay in office," said Oh Se Hyun, a 43-year-old assemblyman who announced recently that he was so disgusted with Korean politics, he would not seek a second term. "South Korean politics still has a long way to go."

To meet their voracious need for cash, politicians have traditionally turned to South Korea's largest conglomerates, the chaebol. Under the law, corporations are not supposed to give more than $200,000 to political parties, but they are usually asked to cough up much more. That requires that the corporations maintain off-the-books slush funds so that they have a source of cash when needed.

And the people who handle so much money in cash are easily tempted to pocket some for themselves creating a cycle of corruption that permeates society.

In the current round of investigations, it appears that the lion's share of the money about $40 million went to the conservative Grand National Party, which has traditionally been favored by big business. But President Roh, a maverick labor lawyer who cultivated a squeaky-clean image during the campaign, is also in trouble.

One of the president's closest aides was caught on videotape in July carousing with a nightclub operator who was under investigation for soliciting the murder of a rival. In another incident, Roh is alleged to have been in the room when a resort company executive handed an aide a shopping bag with $25,000 in illegal contributions.

Last month, the National Assembly overrode a presidential veto to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate corruption in the presidential staff.

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Voters Getting Soured

The corruption scandals swirling around Roh and his aides are souring voters who remember how his campaign distributed colorful plastic piggy banks for donations in order to show its disdain for big business. In a burst of bravado, Roh declared that he would resign as president if the prosecutors found that his camp took more than one-tenth as many illegal contributions as the opposition. Roh's allies now say he was speaking rhetorically.

"Roh is being hoisted on his own petard because he projected an ideal that he cannot live up to," said Scott Snyder, Seoul representative for the nonprofit Asia Foundation.

If the citizenry is disgusted by the allegations, it can take some solace in the fact that so much dirty laundry is being aired in public. Prosecutors say they expect South Korean politics will never be the same after they have finished their investigations.

"Times have really changed. The public is really desiring change. We prosecutors are free from government pressure," said Ahn Dae Hee, the chief prosecutor of the criminal investigation division. "I don't think that in the future South Korea will have the same problems with corruption."

But the cynics note that other South Korean leaders, from Chun Doo Hwan to Roh Tae Woo, launched their administrations with drives to root out corruption. Both Chun and Roh ended up going to prison, while the sons of their successors Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung landed in trouble over alleged political corruption.

Mo Jo Ryong, a political scientist at Yonsei University, says he is skeptical about the current investigation because it has uncovered relatively little money given by the big conglomerates to Roh Moo Hyun's camp.

"It's like peeling back the layers of the onion," Mo said. "They keep on getting closer, but they never get to the heart of the problem."

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Jinna Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

A testProsecutors in Seoul try to see whether 4 billion won would fit in a sedan, as a bribery case alleges.
(C.S. Kim / JoongAng Ilbo)