An Unstable North Korea Looms Over South's Scandal
An investigation moves closer to President Kim after last Friday's arrest of his son.
Amid recent demands to uncover the truth about election funds in South Korea runs a countercurrent of restraint.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
As details surrounding a campaign-financing scandal involving the president's son unfold, cries to remove President Kim Young Sam from office grow more shrill. But amid the charges and countercharges of official corruption, bribery, and money laundering, opposition lawmakers are in a unique situation.
While keeping the heat on the president, they realize that sending a message of instability to their archrival over the border could be disastrous. South Korea has always been conscious about how events in the South play in North Korea.
"[We] shouldn't go beyond the point where chaos prevails and gives a misleading signal to the North Koreans," says Kim Sang-woo, a member of the main opposition party, the National Congress for New Politics.
Some here worry that the tumult surrounding politics in the South may make it vulnerable to an attack from the North. They worry that food shortages in North Korea may push some hard-liners in the isolated, Stalinist regime to take precipitous action. Others say recent food-aid agreements will send a positive message and that the president's political troubles will not affect the South's ability to repel a possible attack from the North.
Moving beyond the latest scandal
Claims that President Kim spent far over the legal limits in his 1992 campaign have been bolstered by the arrest of his son last week on bribery and corruption charges and allegations that he laundered leftover campaign money.
But many here would also simply like to get beyond the election-fund politics. Although they're disgusted that their reform-crusading president is surrounded by scandal, they agree that simply punishing him won't accomplish much. To begin with, Koreans would like to end the history of clumsily deposing their former presidents. One was exiled in Hawaii, one assassinated, and the last two are now in prison.
Also, because so many businessmen and lawmakers are entangled in election corruption, chasing down all the links would be excessive. The process of sending the president to jail "would be like burning down the house to get the mosquito which bit someone," says Yoon Chung-suk, a professor at Central University in Seoul.
"If [Kim] gets punished, the rest of the country should get punished as well," says Cho Baik-hee, complaining about corruption in many aspects of Korean society. Like many other mothers in her neighborhood, Mrs. Cho recently bribed her six-year-old's school teacher $250 to give her child extra attention in class.
Others complain the scandal is distracting from urgent issues facing South Korea. Restructuring the slowing economy will take creative cost-cutting, and revamping the country's education system is a must. And then there is North Korea, either about to attack or collapse.
In the end, whether the president is tried and punished will ultimately hinge on the integrity of the legal process, the attitude of the next president, and public opinion.
Observers say President Kim hoped that sacrificing his son's career would appease critics. But he rekindled opposition anger last Friday by refusing to disclose his campaign fund, citing a lack of records. The latest calls for his resignation were sparked by his government's announcement of an anticorruption probe of high-level officials on Friday.
"Everybody knows Kim spent far, far more [than the legal limit]," says Yang Sung-chul, an opposition lawmaker. Opponents also suspect that Kim knows how much money was spent. But they're disappointed that Kim hasn't learned President Truman's dictum "the buck stops here" and taken responsibility, Mr. Yang says. In a joint meeting today, opposition parties are expected to call for Kim's impeachment.
Meanwhile, calls for change in the way elections are funded and run have emerged. These include replacing private donations with a public election fund and expensive outdoor rallies with TV debates.
But as Professor Yoon, an informal government adviser for nearly 20 years, says, "Really, the law cannot change anything here." Much more important is for the president to take initiative and put new ethics into practice, he says.