Mr. Clean's Dirty Land

Time Magazine, August 2, 1999, Vol. 154, No. 4

By Donald Macintyre

Korean President Kim Dae Jung's popularity is shaken by a string of high-level corruption scandals

Glamorous, aggressively sociable and politically plugged in, Joo Hae Ran was known in the local media as the "Hillary" of her native Kyonggi province. The wife of powerful provincial Governor Lim Chang Yuel championed neglected causes--the welfare of prostitutes, unwed mothers, aids victims--and entertained the movers and shakers of Korean society at lavish banquets, often singing and playing the piano for guests. Her husband negotiated the country's $58 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund in late 1997. So the couple's arrest on bribery charges a few weeks ago came as a shock to a nation inured to stories of corruption in high places. Prosecutors say Joo and her husband took bribes worth more than $400,000 from a troubled bank facing an IMF-imposed shutdown. They spent last week in separate concrete cells at Inchon Correction Center, west of Seoul.

Dramatic as it was, the power couple's fall from grace was only the latest tale of high-level corruption to embarrass the government of President Kim Dae Jung. The former dissident, who spent years in jail under corrupt authoritarian governments, took office last year promising to root out graft. Blaming cozy ties between government and business for many of Korea's woes, Kim pledged to create a more transparent society. But stories of influence-peddling and bribery have dominated the headlines in recent months, galling Koreans in tough economic times. "I am heartbroken," says Park Tae Ho, a Seoul office manager. "I thought this government would be cleaner than its predecessors."

It's hard to blame Koreans for feeling a sense of déjà vu. In May, prosecutors hauled in the wife of a jailed tycoon on suspicion she tried to bribe the Justice Minister's wife with a fur coat and designer dresses. The minister survived fur-gate but had to step down after he was accused of fomenting a strike at a government mint to discredit a labor union. Last month, key presidential adviser You Jong Kuen came under fire over his finances after a burglar allegedly stole $100,000 from his home: how, ask Koreans, did he come to have that kind of cash? Then Kim's newly appointed Environment Minister, actress Sohn Sook, was forced to resign--word got out that Korean businessmen handed her $20,000 following a performance she gave in Moscow during a presidential visit. (She said the cash was for a theater company.)

Kim's own reputation for integrity remains unsullied, but the racy headlines have battered his standing in the polls--despite his deft handling of Korea's now-recovering economy. His government moved to stem the damage last month by introducing antigraft guidelines for civil servants. The rules enjoin bureaucrats not to "receive the favor of going to a luxurious place for a drink or a game of golf." Also banned: accepting money to mark a new appointment, the marriage of a son or daughter or the funeral of a parent (senior mandarins have been known to rake in $100,000 or more at weddings and funerals).

Nobody is quite sure how the guidelines will be enforced. Unlike similar rules in the U.S., they don't spell out what "luxurious" means and there are no penalty provisions. Says Moon Jung In, a political science professor at Seoul's Yonsei University: "Kim Dae Jung is really committed to eradicating corruption. But he doesn't know how to do it." What's more, the new guidelines don't address the corrupt practices that permeated Korean society during the years of authoritarian rule. At primary school, parents regularly bribe teachers to get their children seats at the front of the class or better grades. Motorists pulled over for drunk driving buy their way out of a citation. Positions at top universities can be out of reach to anyone unwilling to pay off the right professors. After 19 children died in a summer camp dormitory fire last month, Koreans were horrified to learn that local safety inspectors had been paid off to overlook such violations as missing fire extinguishers and flammable building materials. Transparency International, a Berlin-based group that monitors government corruption, last year ranked South Korea 43rd, alongside Zimbabwe and behind Italy and Japan, on an index that asks business people to rate corruption levels.

On the bright side, however, some of the worst excesses of the system are fading. As greater transparency forces bureaucrats and politicians to be more accountable, bribery is no longer the only way to get things done. The recent scandals may also be a sign that payoffs and under-the-table envelopes are now harder to conceal. Average citizens are freer to speak out, and they're clearly less tolerant of corruption--in the past, when presidents could amass illegal war chests worth hundreds of millions of dollars, fur coats weren't even on the radar screen.

Resentment that some of the élite aren't in tune with the times helps explain why an escaped convict and murderer has become something of a folk hero in South Korea.

Arrested earlier this month after two-and-a-half years on the run, Shin Chang Won netted about $400,000 plus cars and jewelry in a string of robberies, police say. He claims he gave some of it to orphanages and the homeless. Nobody sees Shin as a paragon of virtue--police have added rape to the charges against him. But he is getting more sympathy than the fur-coated matrons and would-be Hillarys.

With reporting by Donald Kirk and Andrew Wood/Seoul