[NOTEBOOK]Personal honor, ruined careers

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[NOTEBOOK]Personal honor, ruined careers

A few days ago I had a chance to chat with the former senior secretary to the president for economic affairs, Lee Ki-ho. Out of curiosity and professional duty, I asked him the inevitable question about the alleged hunt by ship for lost treasure. His answer was quick and simple.

According to Mr. Lee, Lee Hyung-taek, the former managing director at Korea Deposit Management Corp., came to him in 1999 and told him he had some information about lost treasure. Lee Ki-ho passed the information along to the deputy of the National Intelligence Service and later Lee Ki-ho was notified by that agency that it believed there was probably nothing to the tale and that the same was informed to Lee Hyung-taek. "That's all there is to the story," said the former secretary. He added, "I know the head of the service very well. If I had really any intention of lobbying, why would I go to the deputy? I would have gone straight to the top."

That led to some other questions. "Why did you not inform the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries or bring up the issue at a senior secretaries meeting instead of going to the National Intelligence Service?"

His answer was quite simple. "There are certain guidelines related to the services' investigation of matters of national interest. Anything that might be of value to the country but needs to be investigated is a subject for them to take a look at."

In the end, Mr. Lee was fired from his post and was the subject of investigations by the independent counsel. Until that incident came to light and was investigated, rumor had it that Mr. Lee would be named minister at one of the economic ministries.

He apparently has been exonerated by the independent counsel's investigations, and it is fairly safe to say that he is not guilty under the law. Now that he is free, he has plenty to say about his innocence, but to talk to and to convince everyone who is giving him suspicious looks would be quite a task.

Kim In-ho, a 30-year career civil servant and one of Mr. Lee's predecessors in the Blue House job, suffered even worse slings and arrows a few years ago than those cast Mr. Lee's way.

Mr. Kim was excoriated as the main culprit behind the 1997-98 economic crisis, and even went to jail in 1998. His sins were concealing Korea's crisis in foreign exchange reserves and therefore preventing policymakers from knowing all the facts needed to fix the problem. Once jailed, he thought there was no way out; the powerful, the prosecution and the press were out to crucify him.

Nevertheless, he was found not guilty of most of the things he was accused of at his first trial. He was not acquitted of exercising influence in a case in which the Haitai Group received preferential loans, but that was not connected to the overall economic crisis, and even in that case the punishment was light: Suspension of his civil service qualifications. The sentence was withheld.

Kim Young-jae, a former spokesman for the Financial Supervisory Committee, was once called "the bugle boy of financial reform."

He was jailed for allegedly accepting bribes. A recent Supreme Court ruling cleared him of those charges, but other charges recently were made against him. "I was ready to die," Kim Young-jae said of his state of mind as he walked out of jail. "Even though I was acquitted, I could not think of living anymore,"

The more powerful you are, the more you become a subject of surveillance and the target of the press. You have to be very careful, especially in times like these. Honor has to be defended by its bearer, but there are things that no one can do alone.

The new National Assembly session has become a place where the government of President Kim Dae-jung has been called "the Red Guard of Kim Jong-il," and Lee Hoi-chang has been called "the root of evil." If that is the way the members of the National Assembly want to play the game, no one can stop them. Honor has to be protected by others as well, especially, by institutions of power, such as the press.

As we parted, Lee Ki-ho said that he is writing his memoirs and plans to lecture at colleges, so he would keep busy. But when he reflected on how his 30 years of public service ended, it was hard for him to hide his bitterness.


The writer is business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Min Byong-kwan

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