[Viewpoint] Weighing innocence

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[Viewpoint] Weighing innocence

‘When I was in elementary school, the TV drama series ‘Yeoro,’ starring actress Tae Hyeon-sil, was very popular. We did not have a television at home, so my sister and I went to a rich neighbor’s house to watch it. But the neighbor unleashed a dog to drive us away. My sister and I came home crying. Since then, I have believed that poverty was not a sin but something I needed to overcome. Together with you, I wanted to overcome poverty.”

Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Kwang-jae wrote this letter to his constituency and a grateful public before being taken in for questioning. Why did he talk about the incident? Maybe what he really meant to say was, “Just like Roh Moo-hyun, my life began in poverty. I went to prestigious Yonsei University, and could have gotten a well-paying job, but I instead chose to join the labor movement. Along the way, I met Roh, a strong-willed politician, and helped him to become president. I delivered briquettes and taught evening classes for the poor in my district.”

Lee was saying aloud that he was so poor he was chased away by a dog, but he was never swayed by greed and lived his life according to his convictions. He wrote, “I will prove that the young man who had been loved by all of you did not lead a reckless life.”

Among the many politicians and officials involved in the Park Yeon-cha scandal, I’m paying special attention to the matter of Lee Kwang-jae. Among the former aides closest to former president Roh and those who held influence and power during the Roh Administration, he has up to this point been the most notable person to continue the “Roh Moo-hyun brand” of politics. Ahn Hee-jeong, who sits on the Democratic Party’s supreme council, does not have a seat in the National Assembly, and lawmaker Seo Gab-won was not as influential as Lee.

Another reason I carefully watch the Lee case is that he so earnestly asserts his innocence. On March 23, in his letter to Gangwon Province residents and others, he said, “I will prove my innocence with the power, you, of Gangwon Province, have given me.” On March 25, just before a warrant hearing, he composed two messages. In the first, he wrote, “I will resign my seat and stand trial as a civilian.” He argued that some of his former aides seemed to have taken bribes, and he would take responsibility and step down. The other message was the one I quoted above. Typically, I like to believe prosecutors. That’s not because I favor the prosecution, but because I believe prosecutors should not be swayed by public sentiment. However, there are too many dark precedents to blindly trust the judgment of the prosecutors.

Park Ju-seon, a member of the Democratic Party’s supreme council, has been arrested and indicted three times, and he has been acquitted each time. Park Ji-won, who served as the chief of staff for President Kim Dae-jung, was acquitted of charges that he took a 15 billion won bribe from Hyundai. Byeon Yang-ho, a former high-ranking official at the Ministry of Finance and Economy, was acquitted of bribery at the Supreme Court. It was a case that stirred the country, but he was still acquitted.

Lee himself has been investigated several times, but never arrested or sentenced. Of course, each case has different underlying facts, so today’s charges cannot be linked to past cases. But Lee is emphatically pleading innocence, and given that there have been so many politicians who have been acquitted in the past, I cannot help but suspend judgement in his case.

Lee’s case is very important. If he is acquitted, the Roh Moo-hyun administration might be able salvage a sliver of honor. Roh Moo-hyun’s fortress of morality has almost collapsed under the typhoon of charges from Park Yeon-cha. There are but a few good memories remaining. If Lee turns out to be guilty, people’s hearts will turn away from the Roh administration forever. Corruption is bad enough, but hypocritical rhetoric to defend himself would be seen as even more detestable.

Lee should resign his seat just as he declared. The party should not try to dissuade him, nor should he be dissuaded. Just as he promised, he should stand trial as a civilian. If he is acquitted, he can run again in October. No one knows which big-shot politician will be named in the scandal. But prosecutors should not fall short of the full truth in the matter of Lee Kwang-jae. His case carries a especially heavy significance.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin
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