[TODAY]A tale of two Korean lobbyists

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[TODAY]A tale of two Korean lobbyists

"Koreagate" was a scandal involving the Korean government, which lobbied the U.S. Congress on a large scale in the 1970s. Then-President Park Chung Hee wanted to lessen the U.S. opposition to the Yushin constitution that he promulgated, which in essence allowed him to keep the presidency for life, and to stop the Nixon administration from withdrawing American forces from Korea.

The central figure in "Koreagate," Tongsun Park, is still the personification of a lobbyist to many Koreans.

In a recent interview with a newspaper about bribery allegations against Kim Hong-gul, Mr. Park talked about the requirements for being a good lobbyist. "One must have expert knowledge of the field in question and maintain close ties with powerful people. It is also important to keep silence when one needs to and to keep faith," he told the Maeil Business Newspaper.

Mr. Park's ingenuity as a lobbyist can be seen in his ability to obtain lobbying funds in the United States without receiving a cent from the Korean government. In those days, dollars were so scarce in Korea that even a $50 million military loan from the United States would be headline news in Korea the next day.

Mr. Park managed to raise his stake by using the PL-480 fund mechanism that the United States used to provide low-cost surplus food to developing countries. It gave long-term, low-interest loans to countries like Korea for the purchase of U.S. rice and wheat.

Mr. Park first got himself appointed as the exclusive rice dealer of the Korean government, which valued his connections in the U.S. government. He then took advantage of the competition between contenders for a monopoly on rice exports to Korea, which he stimulated, and raised his commission of 50 cents per metric ton to 95 cents. With his newly acquired fortune, Mr. Park was able to woo members of the U.S. Congress and keep the opposition to the Park Chung Hee administration in check and "dissuade" those calling for the withdrawal of the American troops from Korea.

Mr. Park had a thorough knowledge of his business and of the mechanisms used by the U.S. government in dealing with its surplus grains. That is one of the criteria of a good lobbyist that he cited. He also had fluent English language skills and ties with prestigious families through his classmates at Georgetown University.

Choi Gyu-seon's efforts to form important ties started with an encounter with Kim Dae-jung, then an opposition politician, when Mr. Choi was studying at Wisconsin University in the 1980s.

Mr. Choi's brief stint at Berkeley University in the 1990s also led to an acquaintance with the pop icon Michael Jackson. His ties with Mr. Jackson led to acquaintances with George Soros and a Saudi Arabian billionaire, Prince Al Walid. Mr. Soros flew to Seoul to meet with President-elect Kim, and Prince Al Walid invested $150 million in Daewoo and $50 million in Hyundai, both Mr. Choi's brilliant ideas.

Both Mr. Park and Mr. Choi seem to possess an uncanny talent for befriending foreigners, but that is where their similarities end. If Mr. Park could be called a long distance runner, then Mr. Choi is a sprinter.

Mr. Park's friendships were carefully formed over a long period of time. Mr. Choi relied more on spontaneous turns of luck. The most obvious difference between these two is that Mr. Park used the U.S. Congress as his stage while Mr. Choi, with the exception of the first few years of the Kim Dae-jung administration, remained mostly domestic, bribing Korean government officials and businesses.

The motives for their actions were also different. Mr. Park moved for political causes such as his support for the Park Chung Hee administration and the retention of U.S. forces in Korea. Mr. Choi acted purely out of personal interest.

President Kim Dae-jung overestimated Mr. Choi after seeing a few successes he achieved during the financial crisis. President Kim's trust brought power and offers of money almost too much for a relatively young man in his 30s to bear. Mr. Choi apparently gave into the temptation to call attention to himself.

Later, President Kim took the discreet advice of his aides to keep Mr. Choi at arm's length. But that was only after Mr. Choi, by then wearing Mr. Kim's stars on his shoulders, had built a foundation for his axis of corruption.

President Kim probably believes that Mr. Choi is betraying his trust. But what could be seen as a most tragic betrayal by President Kim's family would be a most welcome relief for those who want to see the layers of corruption surrounding the powerful cleared away.


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The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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