Corruption and infighting roil S. Korea

President Roh Moo-hyun's foreign minister resigned in a rift over how to balance relations with the US and N. Korea.

The forced resignation Thursday of Korea's foreign minister added to the turmoil within a government already shaken by corruption scandals, torn by internal divisions, and weakened by conservative foes in control of the National Assembly.

Yoon Young Kwan, a former Seoul National University professor who had seemed to support President Roh Moo-hyun's desire for an "independent" policy vis-à-vis the United States, was finally forced out after revelation of a deep rift between his subordinates and Roh's closest aides.

Differences focused on how to rationalize the desire of the Bush administration for a firm policy toward North Korea with efforts by Mr. Roh to pursue the "sunshine policy" of reconciliation advocated by his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung. The rift emerged in recent days amid reports that one leading foreign ministry official had accused members of Roh's entourage of fanatic pursuit of their enemies by likening them to Afghanistan's Taliban.

In response, Jeong Chan Yong, a senior secretary at the Blue House, the center of presidential power, said bluntly that foreign ministry officials had "failed to effectively implement the independent foreign policy direction" of the government.

While Mr. Yoon's resignation appeared initially as a setback for closer ties between Seoul and Washington in the midst of an international standoff with North Korea, some analysts questioned the extent to which the furor would force a shift in outlook.

"This is some kind of bureaucratic infighting between institutions," says Kim Tae Hwan of Yonsei University's school of international studies. "Professional diplomats tended to look down on the National Security Council staff surrounding the president and complained they had no idea what diplomacy involves. I don't think it symbolizes a change in policy."

But the incident threatens to consume more of the Roh administration's time and energy, already dissipated by seemingly nonstop corruption scandals. Aides say that the president is consumed by the scandals, so much so that he has little energy left to deal with pressing topics like the economy and North Korea.

'I regret all this'

In his New Year's press conference on Wednesday, the South Korean president acknowledged the scandal has been a distraction. "The public became upset over the issue of illegal presidential election campaign funds, coupled with faults surrounding me," Roh said. "Once again, I regret all this."

Corruption appears certain to grab headlines, taking precedence over North Korea, in the run-up to National Assembly elections in April. In the upcoming contest, he hopes his followers can cut into the majority held by the conservative Grand National Party, an obstacle to whatever he hopes to do on substantive issues.

However, Roh may end up losing support, in part because the southwestern Cholla region is now divided on his presidency after having been largely responsible for his victory in 2002. More than 95 percent of the voters from Cholla cast their ballots for Roh even though he's from near Pusan, the major center in the southeast. The voting again proved the enduring popularity of the region's favorite son, Kim Dae Jung, who had won a similar percentage in the 1997 election but could not seek a second five-year term under the Constitution.

In an bid to win back support, Roh promised to tackle the corruption problem. "We will see every collusive link and abusive power that existed between politics and the press, and politics and business over the past few decades dismantled completely," Roh said.

But, the job is considerably complicated by the realization that numerous former aides of Roh and Kim Dae Jung, two of Mr. Kim's sons, and eight National Assembly members have also been jailed. Roh himself might be a target except for the fact that the Constitution bars prosecutors from pressing charges against a president while still in office.

Some foreign observers, viewing the fallout, see the government badly weakened while facing North Korea in negotiations this year on topics ranging from nuclear weaponry to road and rail contacts between the two Koreas. Nonetheless, there's also a sense of déjà vu, a feeling that Korea has weathered such scandals in the past and will survive the current imbroglio too.

"We've seen much worse than this," says a Western diplomat. "Comparatively, the money they're talking about now is fairly trivial. The government could also gain strength from this business once it's all over."

Korea's most extraordinary revelations of corruption emerged in the trials of two former South Korean leaders, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, both of whom were generals.

A cycle of corruption

The fact that Roh Tae Woo was elected president in 1987, six months after outraged demonstrators forced promulgation of a democratic constitution, did not stop him, like his predecessor Mr. Chun, from assuming that the country's notorious chaebol, or conglomerates, owed him enormous gifts in the ancient tradition of fealty to the ruler. The payoffs to Chun and Roh are estimated in the hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars.

Chun and Roh were both convicted during the administration of Kim Young Sam, elected in 1992 as Korea's first civilian president since 1960.

Mr. Kim is now accused of having received and passed on funds to advance his own political career.

Nongovernmental groups are determined to break what they see as an endless cycle.

"We demand the prosecutors investigate top businessmen to find out how conglomerates engaged in illicit collection of funds for politicians," People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy said in a letter to the Seoul District Public Prosecutor's Office.

Such demands, however, may go unheeded. Prosecutors and courts have periodically gone after tycoons, generally obtaining convictions that result in suspended sentences and large fines. "It's no disgrace," said a manager of a major trading firm. "It's part of the price of doing business."

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