[NOTEBOOK]Graft cases stir memories of Chun“After I completed my term, many of family members and friends were arrested on corruption charges. The last nine months were so painful, being in jail would have been better.” After apologizing to the nation, President Chun Doo Hwan took refuge at Baekdamsa, a Buddhist temple, on Nov. 23, 1988. It was midwinter at Mount Seorak. The stream in front of the temple was already frozen. It was snowing hard.
Baekdamsa is a natural fortress. Surrounded by steep peaks, the only entrance to the temple is across a narrow bridge over the stream. As Mr. Chun arrived at the temple, bodyguards and policemen were positioned at the bridge, completely blocking access to the temple.
In heavy clothing, reporters who were staying in nearby Yongdae-ri at an inn set out on the mountain trail at dawn every day to walk to the temple. Across the stream from the temple, they huddled around a bonfire, waiting for anyone who might be leaving the place of worship. If they had luck, they would meet someone who had spoken to the former president. I was part of the group.
We wanted to know how Mr. Chun was, what he talked about. If we could get a little information, it would be the scoop of the day.
When the sun went down, we would come off the mountain and call the public relations bureau at Inje Police Station. The officials there were easy- going compared with the officials in Seoul. They would occasionally give us a tip or two.
Covering the former first couple was a mission impossible. We had to write stories based on scraps of information. Stories were about how Mr. Chun stopped smoking, how former first lady Lee Sun-ja was suffering from a nervous breakdown, who went to visit them, and how the students from Gangwon National University attempted to stage a demonstration at the temple and how the police thwarted it.
By December, we were bored, cold and starving at the desolated mountain. Some of us would gather firewood from the snowy mountainside, and others would bring sweet potatoes to roast on the bonfire. We would even go ice fishing. We broke the ice with a rock and tried to catch a couple of baby fish. Coming down from the mountain, we looked no better than guerrilla fighters.
The memories from 15 years ago came back to me recently. After all, Mr. Chun was a pioneer in the collection and use of illegal political funds. He had collected several hundred billion dollars from major companies and splurged. His successor Roh Tae-woo inherited the tradition as well. In the wake of two corrupt presidents, politicians and businessmen had established solid and cozy relationship.
In 1995, the two former heads of state were arrested in the name of “correcting a historical wrong.” Prosecutors called in large numbers of concerned politicians and businessmen to investigate the unprecedented corruption case. Koreans thought this was the end of such dirty dealings. But that was not the case.
President Kim Young-sam was the one who put his predecessors in prison, but he too was disgraced at the end of his term. His son and his entourage did not miss the chance to exploit the businessmen by using their influence. His successor Kim Dae-jung was no exception.
Corruption has touched every president and many of those around them. Only mon-ths after the ambitious beginning of the Roh Moo-hyun ad-ministration, the country is ablaze with allegations of illegal campaign funding involving the ruling and opposition parties. On the Internet you can hear the “Ten billion won song.” Combined with a flash animation of a politician eating cash, it is a familiar nursery rhyme with new lyrics. “Received one billion won, and then several billions, received 10 billion won, and then much more...”
The politicians are now depicted as brazen and money gobbling, and businessmen are considered people who spread cash around to buy favors.
The central investigation department of the Supreme Prosecutors Office stressed last week that companies who voluntarily acknowledge their illegal contribution to campaign fund would be handled generously. Politicians and businessmen say they would really do things right this time. Some politicians have proposed that pardons be extended to those who confess wrongdoing. But the question is whether such an approach can cure a chronic ailment. What we need might be major surgery. I am still anxious that we might miss the chance again.
* The writer is social affairs news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Seok-hyun