[INSIGHT]No More Whitewashing of Corruption

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[INSIGHT]No More Whitewashing of Corruption

The issue of the G&G chairman, Lee Yong-ho, seem to have every aspect of a multifaceted scandal. The official charges lodged against Mr. Lee are embezzlement and share price manipulation. Such crimes are difficult without aid from government agencies such as the Financial Supervisory Service, the National Tax Service, the prosecutor's office and the National Intelligence Service. What makes them possible are lobbying funds and personal ties. Politicians by nature need money and they have power and personal ties. Approaching them with money is always easy. The Lee Yong-ho scandal has all of these characteristics.

The most surprising fact is that the charges the Supreme Prosecutors Office lodged against Mr. Lee in detaining him earlier this month are the same ones that the Seoul District Prosecutors Office chose to drop last year when it released Mr. Lee. Working-level prosecutors at the Seoul district office reportedly insisted on detaining and further investigating Mr. Lee, but to no avail, perhaps because of pressure from above.

Taking all these irregularities into consideration, the incident surrounding Mr. Lee has gone beyond the realm of just an economic crime. The focus has now moved on to the lobbying efforts, protection of criminal suspects and attempts to cover up the incident that made it possible for Mr. Lee to carry on his activities despite having breached many laws. Justice Minister Choi Kyung-won's recent directive to Prosecutor General Shin Seung-nam that there should be a "thorough investigation without boundaries" can serve as a good starting point for eradicating the suspicions. In addition to an internal audit and the expansion of the investigation that are already taking place at the prosecutors office, the Board of Audit and Inspection should work to resolve suspicions having to do with the Financial Supervisory Service, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries and the National Tax Service.

In cases having to do with misconduct by prosecutors and ruling party figures since the beginning of the Kim Dae-jung administration, the prosecutors office won no public support for their decisions. The "furgate" scandal, in which the wife of a former prosecutor general received fur coats as bribes, became a major political issue last year after prosecutors attempted to cover it up. That precedent should not be repeated this time around. Prosecutors may feel that their own corrupt behavior and that of the administration of which they are a part should not be revealed. The more they try to cover things up, however, the more explosive the issues become when the truth finally comes out. Incidents like the death of a dissident college student, Park Jong-chul, under torture during Chun Doo-hwan's administration and the U.S. Watergate scandal attest to the power of hidden wrongdoing suddenly revealed.

Under the previous administration, the public trust in the prosecutors' will to investigate senior politicians was not high. But toward the end of President Kim Young-sam's term, prosecutors detained and indicted his second son, who was implicated in various scandals, improving the image of the prosecution.

Back then as it is now, arresting a president's son is not an easy task. The opinion at the upper echelons of the prosecutors' office was divided and there was stiff opposition from some in the Blue House. The arrest was made possible by painstaking efforts on the part of the head of the central investigation division at the Supreme Prosecutors Office, and by a presidential secretary at the Blue House who convinced the president to stay out of the matter.

This time around, prosecutors are in a better position than they were back then to conduct a thorough investigation. There was a special directive from the justice minister, and the suspects, in my opinion, are not as high-profile as a president's son. Depending on the prosecutors' resolve, this could be a great opportunity to restore public trust in their office.

Should the prosecutors' investigation fall short of expectations, an Assembly investigation and the introduction of an independent counsel will follow, since there is an opposition majority in the National Assembly. Although a legislative investigation is a political event, going so far as to name an independent counsel is not a desirable course of event. While independent counsels can ensure fairness and political independence, they cannot fully eradicate all suspicions. Prosecutors should handle the matter themselves.

The ethics of this administration and of the prosecutors hang in the balance. Should they lose public trust once again, they will not ever be able to restore it. In any case, a thorough investigation and an internal audit is the only way for prosecutors to maintain their authority and their credibility.


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The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Seong Byong-wook

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