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South Koreans Ponder Just How Far Corruption Reaches
A widening bribery scandal prompts examination of a give-and-take
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
"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
"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."
Jinna Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.
in Seoul try to see whether 4 billion won would fit in a sedan, as a bribery