[EDITORIALS]Come home, Mr. Ahn

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[EDITORIALS]Come home, Mr. Ahn

Ahn Jung-nam, a former construction and transportation minister, has become embroiled in another scandal. He is suspected of having ordered his subordinates to cut the tax bill of a curb market lender in June, when he was the head of the National Tax Service. He was allegedly acting at the request of Shin Seung-hwan, who has been detained on influence-peddling charges. Mr. Shin is a younger brother of the former chief prosecutor, Shin Seung-nam. Because the younger Mr. Shin has allegedly taken 100 million won ($76,000) from the moneylender, suspicions are rising about whether the former tax chief took bribes or abused his authority.

The independent counsel has transferred the case to the Public Prosecutor's Office, and investigations have not yet begun in earnest. The tax service has issued a statement defending Mr. Ahn. Whether or not he committed a crime will be determined by prosecutors and the courts. But we are concerned that the case may go uninvestigated because Mr. Ahn has been staying overseas for months.

He was a key figure in the administration's reform drives. Last year, he spearheaded the government's high-profile tax probes into newspaper companies under the banner of press reform. He became the talk of the town when he said during a farewell speech to tax officials, "If I die, please put the national flag in my coffin and hold a public funeral in front of the National Tax Service building. At the funeral, sing all four verses of the national anthem."

During a parliamentary inspection of the tax office, he told lawmakers, "After I was appointed as chief tax officer, I went to Mount Mani and made 100 bows. On the day I took office, I visited the national cemetery to pledge my commitment to 'taxation without any sanctuary.'"

Contrary to his assertions, it has become apparent that Mr. Ahn's hands were not clean. Faced with a series of questions about the way he made his fortune, he had to step down as construction and transportation minister just 22 days after he was named to the job. In particular, he was suspected of engaging in speculative investments in real estate because he and his family owned cream-of-the-crop properties in southern Seoul worth 5 billion won. After making some implausible excuses, he left for Japan in November and is said to be staying in Canada now. He did not even attend his mother's funeral after her death late last year.

Mr. Ahn should return to Korea as soon as possible to clear up the suspicions swirling around him. That is the only way he can prove with actions the patriotism and loyalty he emphasized so much. As his alleged connection with the chief prosecutor's brother will inevitably be investigated by law enforcement officials, he should come forward voluntarily to get at the truth about those suspicions. Only by doing so can the current administration's reform initiatives, including the press reform that he advocated so fervently, be restored to some measure of public confidence.

It is a blot on the current administration that Mr. Ahn, one of the point men in President Kim Dae-jung's reform policies, is staying in a foreign country to escape the suspicions surrounding him. The government should work to have Mr. Ahn come back to Seoul and rebut those suspicions if he can. This time, public prosecutors must investigate every aspect of the controversy involving Mr. Ahn to clear away the foul stench surrounding the former tax official and minister.
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