[NOTEBOOK]The bulldog barks at politicians

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[NOTEBOOK]The bulldog barks at politicians

It has been more than three weeks since the cash-for-summit allegations broke, charges that Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. acted as a channel for cash from Seoul to Pyeongyang. Among all the unanswered questions is the omission of the signature of the firm's president, Kim Choong-shik, on the loan documents that brought Hyundai 400 billion won ($359 million using the exchange rate at the time) from the Korea Development Bank in June 2000. That is not all that is wrong; there was no address of the borrower on the documents, and they say the amount is 4 billion won, not 400 billion. The bank has said that these were simple errors, but that what is important was the company seal, which was on the paper.

But after seeing a copy of the document, I thought those errors were unlike Mr. Kim, who has spent most of his 20 years at Hyundai Merchant Marine in the financial department. He was very good with numbers, and he was generally a sharp person.

There is also another side to him. He was a senior executive when the late founder of the Hyundai Group, Chung Ju-yung, ran for president in 1992. The group would suffer a great deal after Kim Young-sam won the election; President Kim did not forgive Hyundai for Mr. Chung's challenge. The National Tax Service went after Hyundai companies, followed by investigations by prosecutors. Hyundai Merchant Marine was a cash cow at the time and became the target of particularly heavy fire.

One day, as agents were closing down on him, Mr. Kim disappeared. He had been in charge of the company's money and, taking all the blame, he stayed in hiding for nearly two years. He later remembered that he constantly thought about turning himself in. He said he even spent time hiding in a mountain cave at one time. He would lose 10 kilograms and acquired a lingering illness. He surrendered after the crisis died down and served six months in prison. The business community gave him a nickname, "a Jindo dog," referring to the breed from the southern Jindo Island famous for their loyalty to their owners.

But even this man known for loyalty confronted Chairman Chung Mong-hun and his cronies when it came to Hyundai's troubled business in North Korea. He held out until he probably could no longer and then resigned, leaving for the United States last fall.

Former Korea Development Bank Governor Uhm Rak-yong said during a National Assembly investigation that Mr. Kim had said the government should repay the loan because Hyundai Merchant Marine did not use the money. When asked later why Mr. Kim had said that, Mr. Uhm asked in return why people testifying before the National Assembly are required to swear that they will tell the truth. In other words, Mr. Kim said it because it was the truth. Some observers have said that Mr. Uhm's bombshell was a politically calculated move aimed at winning a senior post in the next administration, but the Mr. Uhm I know -- and this is a personal view -- could not be further from political or calculating.

He is a man who spent years in the Finance Ministry, winning the nickname "bulldog" early in the career because of his stubbornness. He mellowed a lot after becoming a church-goer, but people who know him say he is still a principled man just as he used to be. But if he was really trying to win a government post, then his chance is gone; the next president, whoever it may be, would feel uncomfortable giving him a good job. He said himself to reporters: "I probably can't, and really shouldn't take a public service job any more."

His statement has put a lot of people in trouble, and these are people who shared the good times and bad times with him at the Finance Ministry for many years. It remains a mystery why he felt it necessary to come forward. It is not easy to make a public statement that puts a serious onus on others when it does not help the person making the charges. We still do not have a clue about the puzzle left behind by the "Jindo dog" chief executive and "bulldog" bureaucrat.


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The writer is business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Min Byong-kwan

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