A poorer South Korea looks for someone to take the blame

Parliament begins hearings on causes of troubled economy, butopposition boycotts.

To Amer-icans weary of the Clinton impeachment proceedings, the scene half a world away could have its similarities.

"Maybe I made some mistakes ... but I don't think I committed any legal crime," says Kang Kyung Shik.

Mr. Kang was economic minister when South Korea's crisis hit in November 1997. A lightning rod for blame, Kang was fired, jailed, and is now a prominent figure in parliamentary hearings to probe the causes of South Korea's economic troubles.

From the former president on down, witnesses are being called to testify on an issue of more national importance, perhaps, than lying about sex. Polls say 80 percent of Koreans favor the hearings. For a country demanding answers and accountability, yesterday's opening session was televised live.

Out on bail, Kang recounts spending last summer in jail - long days of meeting visitors, reading, and attending to his trial. One can sense his lingering weariness and fear. A court decision is expected by summer on charges of negligence and abuse of power. He could spend six years in prison. But "the guy accused of destroying the economy," as he calls himself, survives with humor. How was jail? "Everything is free!" he jokes.

Kang seems almost amused that he should be held responsible for something as big as the economic meltdown. Analysts attribute the crisis to structural problems that go back decades.

A buildup of problems

Kang ticks off everything that went wrong leading up to the humiliating decision to seek a $57 billion International Monetary Fund bailout. A corrupt nexus of power encouraged Korean companies to expand overconfidently, heedless of business cycles.

When the downturn came, sudden bankruptcies undermined investor confidence. After Thailand became the first country to succumb to the region's crisis in July, it was much harder to secure new loans or roll over existing ones and the financial pinch began, he says. Kang claims he pushed reforms, but was stymied by vested interests. In his brief eight months as minister, he says he did what he could.

Current president Kim Dae Jung's aggressive reforms are "long overdue. They're exactly what I had in mind," Kang says. But Kang acquiesced to several questionable steps.

Nationalizing bankrupt automaker Kia essentially told investors Korea was not serious about reform. Defending the currency, the won, instead of raising interest rates may have unnecessarily depleted reserves. Critics say if Kang had acted sooner or more forcefully with big bankruptcies like Kia's, investor panic might have been been staved off and the won's strength maintained.

But "the real point is, could anyone have saved the situation? I think it's a little hard to claim they could have," says Henry Morris at Industrial Research Consulting in Seoul. "Seat of the pants" business planning, cronyism, and corruption are the real villains, says Mr. Morris.

The hearings, portrayed as a way to uncover the roots of the crisis and inform an angry public, will not call upon expert analysis or independent reports. Lawmakers will simply question witnesses in a public forum.

The political opposition says it will simply amount to defamation and political vengeance. So they are boycotting, claiming that President Kim Dae Jung, who long suffered as an outsider, is having his day and cementing his rule. "People know [ex-President Kim Young Sam's administration] was responsible. There's no point to remind people," says a frustrated opposition party staffer.

Tradition of humiliation

Korean politicians have traditionally purged or humiliated opponents once they gain power. Former president Kim Young Sam sent his predecessors to jail for massive political corruption and violent suppression. Now Mr. Kim is to stand witness for his role in today's economic crisis.

The ruling National Congress for New Politics party justifies the hearings, saying that while the causes of the crisis are generally known, many details have not been clarified.

Kang agrees. "The purpose of hearing [should be to] find out what mistake I [and] our government made, and what kind of lessons we can learn from this." But he too would prefer expert investigation, similar to Thailand's report.

An independent politician in the National Assembly, Kang insists that when it's all over, he should be judged by "the people's vote," not the courts. In May 2000 he plans to run for reelection. But "I have to survive this hearing first," he admits.

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