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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

All Falling Down

Two Presidents, Seven Tycoons - Who's Next?

By Sangwon Suh


IT WAS UNPRECEDENTED: TWO former presidents arrested and seven of the country's top tycoons indicted for bribery - all in a matter of weeks. For a society with a strong sense of hierarchy and respect for authority, the sight of these once-untouchable men being hauled into the prosecutor's office and in some cases into prison was a strangely cathartic experience. The old order - with its overtones of corruption and authoritarianism - was being swept clean.

The arrest of ex-president Chun Doo Hwan on Dec. 3 was the high point so far in the still-evolving drama. Chun, 64, was charged with military rebellion for his role in the 1979 coup that brought him to power. The saga began with the TV appearance in October of Chun's successor Roh Tae Woo. With President Kim Young Sam's prosecutors digging into his finances, Roh, 63, tearfully confessed to having amassed a $650-million slush fund during his presidency. He was arrested on Nov. 16.

Earlier the chairman of the Hanbo Group, Chung Tae Soo, had been arrested for bribery. But for weeks, everyone wondered whether the government would move against the other big bosses who had paid bribes. The answer came on Dec. 5. Senior prosecutor Ahn Kang Min announced in a TV press conference that Roh was being indicted for receiving $369 million in bribes from 35 business leaders.

Then he dropped the other shoe - or shoes: seven chairmen of major chaebols, or conglomerates, including Lee Kun Hee of Samsung and Kim Woo Choong of Daewoo, were being charged with paying bribes of up to $32.5 million to Roh. But while Roh and Chun would await trial behind bars, the tycoons were allowed to remain free. "We've indicted those businessmen, but without detention, after taking into account that their businesses, including overseas contracts, could be endangered if they are arrested," said Ahn. In response, the stock market rose 1.2%. Prosecutors would decide later whether to indict the other bribe-givers.

The charges against Chun opened up another national wound: the Kwangju massacre. President Kim announced two weeks ago that a special law would be enacted to punish the masterminds behind the brutal 1980 suppression of pro-democracy protests in Kwangju. The uprising had followed Chun's coup and his declaration of martial law.

Kim's decision to go after Chun was a surprise turnaround, as he had always said the judgment on Kwangju should be left to history for the sake of national unity. But he may have felt that he could no longer go against the public's anti-Chun sentiment, which had reached fever-pitch. Recently a man was assaulted simply because he resembled the former general. Kim may also have been emboldened by the military's calm acceptance of Roh's arrest.

Chun was summoned to appear in the prosecutor's office on Dec. 2. But in a press briefing held outside his Seoul home that day, Chun refused to cooperate with the authorities and charged that the investigation was politically motivated. He exuded an air of grim defiance - in stark contrast to Roh, whose demeanor during the slush fund scandal has been one of humility and remorse. Afterwards, Chun went off to his hometown of Hapchon in the south to a warm public welcome.

A Seoul court immediately issued an arrest warrant. Investigators arrived at Chun's home early on Dec. 3. Despite worries that his supporters would resort to violence, the arrest was incident-free apart from some jostling. Chun was bundled into a car and taken to Anyang Prison on the outskirts of Seoul. Toward the end of the four-hour journey, demonstrators lined the road and threw rice crackers at Chun's car. Believing they were his supporters, Chun raised his hand to acknowledge them, but quickly lowered it when he noticed signs saying, "Death to Chun Doo Hwan!"

It was a humiliating experience for someone who had once been the country's most feared man. Chun's rise to power began shortly after the assassination of president Park Chung Hee by his intelligence chief on Oct. 26, 1979. That December, Chun, then a major-general, staged a coup and arrested a number of his superior officers, including army chief of staff Chung Seung Hwa, ostensibly for complicity in Park's killing. Aiding Chun was fellow general Roh Tae Woo, who mobilized troops to seize strategic points in the capital. When Chun stepped down in 1987, he chose Roh as his successor. Roh won the first democratic elections in 30 years after Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung split the opposition vote.

While most Koreans welcomed the decision to prosecute Chun and Roh, President Kim may not reap the rewards. Though he has consistently denied it, still unresolved is whether Kim received money from Roh's slush fund. Roh was chairman of the ruling Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) when Kim Young Sam successfully ran for president in the 1992 election. Even opposition leader Kim Dae Jung has admitted to accepting money. If the ongoing investigations reveal that the president was involved, it could cause his downfall.

The ruling party may also be damaged. The DLP was formed in 1990 when Kim Young Sam, then an oppositionist, joined forces with Roh. Thus many members are supporters of Chun and Roh; some were even participants in Chun's coup. A split in the party is a real possibility. In such a case, the DLP's slim majority in the National Assembly could be wiped out in next April's elections. On Dec. 6, the party changed its name to the New Korea Party, in the hope of distancing itself from the scandal.

In contrast, the chaebol leaders' indictments are not expected to hurt the economy. "There won't be a big effect on business," says Han Tae Joon, a research fellow at Seoul's Sejong Institute. "Business in Korea is too sophisticated now to be affected by the indictment of several people, even leaders of top chaebols." Still, by seeing figures of authority being held accountable for their actions, Korean society may have already been transformed.

- Reported by Kim In Kyung/Seoul and Assif Shameen


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