SOUTH Korean President Kim Young Sam is struggling to control a scandal that threatens to unravel his country's political and economic establishment.
Mr. Kim stunned the country late last week by calling for the prosecution of two former military rulers for killing dissident civilians in 1980. The Kwangju massacre, as the episode is known, is South Korea's most painful symbol of the authoritarianism of the three decades of military rule that ended with Kim's election in 1992.
That era, which some observers idealize as a period of rigorous but economically beneficent dictatorship, is now coming under intense scrutiny. Its excesses are beginning to look so extreme that Lord Acton's adage about absolute power corrupting absolutely seems inadequate to explain it.
Kim's predecessor, former President Roh Tae Woo, has admitted amassing a secret slush fund that may have reached $1 billion. The chairmen of South Korea's business conglomerates, who provided the under-the-table money, have been questioned and several may be indicted for bribery.
There are allegations that Roh has used the funds in real-estate deals that benefited his family and is hiding a fortune in Swiss bank accounts. Now under arrest, the former leader has offered a public apology, but no explanation. His supporters have said the money was used for political purposes, not personal use.
President Kim has denied accusations that he partook of the secret funds, but he seems to recognize that denials will not be enough to convince a skeptical public.
Electoral politics play a role
Kim is sandwiched between two elections. In June the country held virtually unprecedented local elections in which Kim's ruling Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) fared badly. Voters will return to the polls in April to elect the National Assembly, South Korea's unicameral legislature, and analysts are predicting that the DLP will again take losses.
Kim is turning to Kwangju - and against Roh, his onetime political ally - to win public support. ''He has been really trying to find some breakthrough to escape from a very defensive position,'' says Kil Jeong-Woo, a Seoul-based newspaper columnist and former diplomat.
In late 1979, Roh and a fellow officer, then-Lt. Gen. Chun Doo Hwan, engineered a military coup that eventually brought Mr. Chun to power. In May 1980, the military suppressed a popular rebellion in the southern city of Kwangju, killing 192 people by official count. Dissidents and residents have long said the real toll was several times that number and called for the punishment of Chun and Roh.
Until now, the president has endorsed various administrative and judicial decisions against prosecution. But on Nov. 24 he ordered his party to draft a law that would allow the two men to be tried for authorizing the suppression.
Although the move struck observers as an example of political opportunism, many Koreans also saw it as a sign that the momentum for significant reform continues to build, even a month after the revelation of Roh's slush fund. ''This is a good opportunity for South Korean society,'' observes Mr. Kil, who adds that he sees ''many positive signs'' of change.
The prosecutors investigating the case, for instance, took the step of arresting and jailing Roh, an unprecedented action in Korean history. ''Even just a couple of months ago, the investigators were just obeying instructions from the top,'' Kil says.
It remains to be seen how vigorously prosecutors will pursue business leaders, since many officials and observers have warned that imprisoning South Korea's top managers will hobble the economy.
Popular sentiment, which initially seemed to go along with this logic, now seems to be turning, says Yi Dae Hoon, chief coordinator of an independent advocacy group called People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. Although people acknowledge that corporations will suffer if their chairmen or presidents are tried, Mr. Yi says, there is a growing recognition of the ultimate benefits of such a process.
Correcting 'one-man rule'
Many Korean institutions - political parties and corporations, for example - are grouped around a single strong leader who caps a rigid power structure.
Mr. Yi says young people in particular see the current turmoil as the time to correct the ''one-man rule'' system. ''We are opposing the hierarchical authoritarianism of the past, both in business and politics.'' He disputes the suggestion that this structure's Confucian roots will make it impossible to overturn: ''The mood of the time is changing,'' he says.
Today, criticism of South Korea's elite is being broadly voiced. Cho Soon, the mayor of Seoul and an opposition leader, gave a speech in Sydney, Australia, this week on democracy in northeast Asia. His country, he said, ''is being debilitated by corruption, unreason, and greed emanating from the elite.'' Only when scholars, lawyers, and bankers live up to ''principles of freedom, fairness, and justice,'' Mr. Cho argued, will South Korea ''eventually succeed in establishing [a] democratic tradition.''