Mr. Clean's Dirty Land
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
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