South Korea's Kim Wins Plaudits For Anticorruption Campaign
New president's popularity high as he targets military and politicians
TOKYO — FOR decades, South Koreans were told by military-dominated regimes that their paramount foe was North Korea.
But Kim Young Sam, the nation's first civilian president in 32 years, has won immense popularity by proclaiming that corruption is now Public Enemy No. 1.
And 100 days into his term today, Mr. Kim has made a rapid start in rooting out corruption from almost every corner of South Korean society.
From military top brass to his own associates, his government has fingered about 1,000 officials for misdeeds, or forced them to resign for having unexplained wealth.
Even prosecutors have been arrested. "Unless corruption is eliminated we cannot build a new Korea," says presidential spokesman Lee Kyung Jae. His aides claim that South Korea may become a model in Asia for democracy and official virtue.
Kim's popularity, according to newspaper surveys, is above 70 percent, while more than 85 percent of South Koreans welcome his reformist policy.
One of his first acts after taking office Feb. 25 was to declare he would not play golf, a sport considered exclusive to the rich in Korea.
But the fast pace and broad scope of his "moralism" campaign, which is driven by a popular resentment against past rulers, has also raised eyebrows among critics, who warn that a despot may be in the making.
"He's done a lot very quickly about dirty politics and business in Korea," says Kim Yu Nam, a political science professor at Dankook University in Seoul. "But many fear that he could easily become a populist dictator."
For now, however, Kim's main problem is rising criticism that he may not have gone far enough in punishing abuses of the past. Student protests over the past three weeks have focused on his decision not to prosecute his two predecessors, former presidents Roh Tae Woo and Chun Doo Hwan.
As a former opposition leader, Kim was himself a victim of military rule. He was once under house arrest for three years. His image was slightly tarnished in 1991 when he made a dramatic jump over to the ruling party of then-President Roh, a former general, as the country was shedding its authoritarian ways for democracy. It was an obvious attempt to win the presidency.
In a plea for reconciliation, Kim asked Koreans to let history judge the deeds of Roh and Chun. "It takes great courage to forgive," Kim said in a nationwide television address. "Only by so doing can we end the 13-year nightmare and heal the trauma."
In 1979, Chun, then an Army major general, led a coup against military leaders with the help of Roh. And in 1980 his regime suppressed an uprising in the city of Kwangju that left about 200 people dead. By 1987, however, student protests had forced the regime toward democracy.
These events and Kim's apparent gratitude to Roh has created a dilemma for him. In a speech, he went only so far as to describe the 1979 coup as "a kind of a military coup staged by officers against their superiors." To prosecute Roh and Chun, who still hold some power, might trigger a political crisis, Kim's aides say. "I have had many sleepless nights over this issue," Kim said in a speech. He did order a memorial in Kwangju and compensation for the victims. But that was not enough for some, and lawsui ts have been filed to uncover the details of the events.
Kim partly incited the criticism when he sacked four generals, including the joint chief of staff, for participating in the 1979 coup. At first the four were to be prosecuted, but Kim changed his mind, because Chun and Roh are presumed to have given orders to the generals.
Other officers involved in the coup may also be let go soon. Such actions have sent a signal to the military to stay out of politics.
At the same time, 15 senior Navy and Air Force officers were arrested in a scandal involving bribes for promotions.
Besides the military shakeup, Kim has put a broom to old-style politicians. Soon after taking office, he disclosed his private assets ($2.3 million) and asked others to follow. More than 300 government officials and legislators followed suit.
Many had accumulated wealth through property speculation, and some were accused of accepting illegal campaign money. Three Cabinet ministers and three legislators, including the house speaker, Park Jun Kyu, have resigned under close scrutiny. "There should be no sanctuary from the anticorruption campaign," Kim said.
In addition, the National Assembly passed an ethics law that requires about 7,000 senior officials to declare their personal assets in August. Another 3,000 lower-ranking officials must register their assets with authorities but need not make them public.
Kim's campaign has unearthed two scandals involving alleged bribery of public officials.
In one, the vice-minister of justice resigned along with two other officials just before they were to be questioned about alleged involvement in a slot-machine racket. And Park Chul Un, a relative of Roh and a former party rival to Kim, was arrested in the same scandal. The other scandal involves alleged bribes by Donghwa Bank to officials under Roh's regime.
Kim says his anticorruption campaign will last to the end of his five-year term. But he also plans to rewrite the rules that help breed corruption, such as campaign financing, and try to improve the people's social behavior to create what he calls a "New Korea."