[TODAY]Rhetoric won’t solve the problemJoseph Estrada was a movie star, the hero of the Phillipine people. In many of his movies, Mr. Estrada played the part of a just thief who stole from the rich to give to the poor. It was with emotional relish that people suffering the hardships of poverty saw Mr. Estrada in his movies. In 1998, he won the presidential election with the overwhelming support of the public.
With his popularity and now the supreme authority of the country in his hands, the Robin Hood of the Philippines set about busily getting corrupted after he became president. He ran a gambling business, he gambled and he received billions of dollars in bribes.
The end of his corruption came soon. One million Philippine people, excepting the poorest people, poured out onto the streets, demanding Mr. Estrada’s resignation. The army and the police soon joined them. Mr. Estrada was arrested on charges of embezzling $82 million during his presidency. He was tried and impeached by the Supreme Court of the Philippines. He went to jail, but is currently hospitalized after pleading ill health. Gone are the glory days of Mr. Estrada, like a dream that’s passed away.
When members of the Communist Party who opposed then-President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms staged a surprise coup d’etat in 1991, Boris Yeltsin, former president of the Russian parliament, was the hero of the Soviet people who climbed on top of a tank at the risk of his life to protest it. After the Soviet Union was dismantled in December of that year, Mr. Yeltsin rose to the top as the Russian Federation’s president ― and something started to smell rotten in the state of Russia. Family members and acquaintances of Mr. Yeltsin, including his second daughter Tatiana, were found to have interfered in government grants and received enormous amounts of money in bribes.
The media, the prosecution and the Communist Party, the majority party in the parliament, all started to press Mr. Yeltsin and his aides. Mr. Yeltsin survived the crisis by naming Vladimir Putin as prime minister. The power of Mr. Putin that Mr. Yeltsin could rely on came from the new prime minister’s background as the chief of Russia’s intelligence agency that succeeded the KGB. Thus, Mr. Putin rose to a position where he was almost surely guaranteed to become the next president, while Mr. Yeltsin could trust Mr. Putin to look after him after he stepped down.
Even in countries with such low political integrity that corruption is synonymous with politics, if the corruption level of the leader and those around him is too flagrant, the leader loses the minimal moral authority needed for governance and the public turns its back. Mr. Estrada had to step down despite the support of the poorest class, while the first thing Mr. Yeltsin had to consider in naming the new prime minister was his safety and that of his family after his retirement from office. The judgment of law came only after that.
The prosecution’s recent announcement shows how complicated and tangled the allegations of corruption against certain close aides of President Roh Moo-hyun and some companies are. President Roh had expressed his utter despair when it was found that Choi Do-sul, a former Blue House secretary, had received money from the SK Group. The amount of bribes allegedly received by Ahn Hee-jung, Lee Kwang-jae and Kang Geum-won, as announced by the prosecution, is far greater than the amount allegedly received by Mr. Choi.
Now it is the public’s turn to express its utter despair. A little over a year ago, Mr. Roh’s prospects of winning the presidential election looked bright with his alliance with another presidential candidate. At that time, Mr. Roh met twice with Moon Byeong-ok, president of the Sun & Moon resort company. Prosecutors allege that on one of those occasions, Mr. Moon handed over 100 million won ($83,000) to Lee Kwang-jae, Mr. Roh’s aide, and that on the other, he gave 30 million won to Yeo Taek-su, another aide, after the presidential candidate had left the room.
The question of Mr. Roh’s involvement in these allegations has now turned from whether he was indeed involved or not to whether he was directly involved or not. What will the president do now? He has said that he was willing to step down if the amount of money his camp received exceeded one-tenth that received by the Grand National Party during and after the presidential election. All that matters is not numbers. Even if it were one-hundredth and not one-tenth, the money received by a president-elect carries far more moral and political consequences than cash received by the opposition party. After Mr. Roh became president, the tax imposed on the Sun & Moon resort company was reduced from 17 billion won to 2.3 billion won. For reasons still unexplained, the character “Roh” was written on top of the National Tax Service files related to the company.
President Roh must tell the truth and redeem his moral authority. Revealing the possibility of resignation can be tantamount to a threat to the public and it can also be an act to hide the truth. Mr. Roh should learn from the lessons of Joseph Estrada and Boris Yeltsin, and take responsibility for making Korean society fall into such a state of moral ambiguity that the line between good and evil has become faint and politics degraded to a joke. These problems cannot be glossed over with the rhetoric of Roh Moo-hyun.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie