Election Cash Laws Breed Contempt

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Election Cash Laws Breed Contempt

In the 1980s there was a politician named Lee Won-jo who was known as the king of the financial sector. His name was mentioned automatically whenever talk of illegal political funds rose to the surface, but nobody could do anything about it until he went to jail during the Kim Young-sam administration. Although Mr. Lee was known as a window for political funding, former President Kim was seemingly immune from the lure of money and declared he would not accept any political funds.

When public opinion cried out for Mr. Lee’s arrest, he said that if he went to jail too many people would get hurt. He served a brief sentence and was released. The information he said he had about political funding may have been too intimidating to keep him jailed for long.

The matter is similar to the current spat between the ruling and opposition parties over the diversion of the intelligence agency’s budget for campaigning by the party then in power.

While prosecutors claimed that the New Korea Party had secretly diverted intelligence funds for 1996 election, the opposition sunk its teeth into the question of Kim Dae-jung’s political funds. When accusations about Kim Young-sam’s funds surfaced, he hinted darkly about the reasons for the quick end to investigations of president Kim Dae-jung’s alleged slush fund of more than 2 billion won ($1.5 million) and made frequent comments to the press about the possibility of other funds which Mr. Kim owned under false names, funds allegedly exposed after the Kim Young-sam administration introduced the “financial real name system” in the mid-1990s.

If political funding is done illegally, it must be investigated. This is a matter of course, especially if the money was for “catching spies.” In many other countries, the political life of an important figure can end overnight over even fewer suspicions. But in Korea, on the contrary, people suspected of illegal acts attack the attackers. It is mysterious that a political party receives sympathy for openly defying the arrest of suspects.

This is because political funds in Korea are collected and supervised improperly. President Kim consistently claims that he never received any illegal funds during his political career. That can mean he did receive money but it was not illegal.

But according to the political funding law, politicians may receive only party expenditures, donations and trust money. There is no politician who can come out clean from a real investigation, so the prosecutors “invented” a clause called “unsolicited funds.” It is all right for politicians to receive any money so long as it is not solicited. This interpretation of the law turned the political funding law into a scrap of paper and enabled politicians who received billions of won to claim innocence without apology, as in the case now under investigation. But the legal interpretation of funds solicitation is very arbitrary. The prosecutors judge the propriety of the money received by politicians.

The administration, which controls the prosecutors, can always distort their judgments politically. For instance, the Gwangmyeong by-election, which was held after this administration came into power, was an unprecedentedly money- tainted election. The Apr.13 general election was stained by arguments about money, and the National Election Commission brought a number of legal charges involving the ruling party, but the prosecutors were suspected of handling the matters politically. The fact that Kim Chong-hoh, a representative of the United Liberal Democrats, is not on the list of recipients of the intelligence agency’s funds is a fresh evidence of political distortion. There were 299 New Korea Party candidates for the Assembly, but why did only 172 people receive money and the others not?

Unless arbitrary interpretations of the law disappear and the temptation to distort politics through power is curbed, nobody will be free from political retaliation because of the collection and use of political funds.
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