[INSIGHT]Honesty makes the best historyHad Syngman Rhee been guilty of corruption, he would probably have forfeited all respect as the first president of our country.
It is a well-known fact that Mr. Rhee, despite his prolonged dictatorial rule, led a frugal and upright life as a private individual. There had been rumors about Mr. Rhee having amassed a secret fortune abroad after the student uprising in 1960 that ousted him, but official government inquiries concluded that the stories were unfounded. At the end of his life, living as an exile in Hawaii, the impoverished Mr. Rhee had to depend on the generosity of the Korean community there to survive.
Even President Park Chung Hee, who ruled the country for more than a decade as a dictator, led a surprisingly thrifty life. Had he squirreled away private wealth in addition to amassing a bad human rights record, he would not have won continued respect from the people despite his remarkable contributions to Korean industrialization.
Mr. Park, also, was subject to allegations of having amassed private wealth after his death but these, too, were found to be untrue.
Had Kim Young-sam been found to have personally engaged in corruption, he would not have been able to continue a vociferous political life after his retirement. Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo were, unfortunately, of a different breed. After their presidential terms, Messrs. Chun and Roh were unusually silent about the affairs of the state for living and breathing former presidents. They were found to have stuck away hundreds of billions of won.
Respected political figures of the past such as Cho Byong-ok and Chang Myon were famous for their integrity. Yoo Jin-san, a prominent opposition politician during President Park’s rule who was once suspected of accepting bribes from the ruling party, had only a mortgaged house when he died of cancer in 1974.
The integrity that they showed is part of the reason why we still respect and honor their names.
What can we say about Kim Dae-jung? There is as yet no evidence of Mr. Kim himself having hoarded wealth. But all three of sons were tried and found guilty of corruption charges in court; and a nephew, a nephew of his wife, close acquaintances, life-long aides and a presidential secretary were also involved in allegations of corruption and influence-peddling.
All in all, Mr. Kim is responsible at least for having allowed so many of his family members and friends to run rampant.
History shows us that all corrupt politicians come to ruin one day, but also that even after committing political mistakes, men of integrity keep their name and honor. This is not true only in Korea.
One of the reasons that Cuba’s Fidel Castro has been able to maintain a 40-year grip on power is that other things aside, he is not corrupt.
Saddam Hussein is still alive, but when piles of money were found in his presidential palace and around his sons, he became a dead man, a cursed man to Iraqis.
The stench of cash seems to be vibrating everywhere in Korea these days. We have heard tales about one person not being able to sleep because of the smell of money stacked up to the ceiling of his bedroom. We have heard stories about 1 billion won ($ 833,000) hidden in an apartment veranda.
But there are more tales of cash yet to come. We now hear that because of the enormous weight of money handed over in a dark alley behind a department store, the tires of a car were flattened and the car could not move easily.
Even before we could find out the story behind the $500 million secretly sent to North Korea, a case involving 15 billion won and another involving 20 billion won have come up. Even before the National Assembly members involved in the Nara Merchant Bank bribery case could appear at the prosecutors office, the Goodmorning City Corp. bribery case came up.
It seems unfortunate that our country is too busy trying to clean up the mess left by the Kim Dae-jung administration to even think about addressing the future.
There’s no telling how many incumbent politicians have received how much and for what purposes, but there are people still wearing National Assembly lapel pins who would not be entitled to do so if the statute of limitations were longer or the truth were found out earlier through swift investigations. Some of them even talk about reform and creating a new party and new politics.
People say we need a new system to guarantee the transparency of political money. That’s right, but what we need more than reform is thorough and strict investigations so the guilty are punished. It must show that those who gain by corruption will be ruined by it ultimately.
It is outrageous that politicians should justify their corruption with the excuse that they’re not the only ones. Even under the past Korean dictatorships, there were men and women of integrity.
Corruption only puts a person under the control of the briber. Even a brief glance at the past shows us what kind of politicians live on in our memories and what kind of politicians become buried in the dusty footnotes of history.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Song Chin-hyok