[Viewpoint] Breaking up Roh’s dubious ‘family’

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[Viewpoint] Breaking up Roh’s dubious ‘family’

On Oct. 9, 2003, then President Roh Moo-hyun invited senior secretaries for dinner at the Blue House. The president had just returned from Bali, Indonesia after attending an APEC+3 meeting. He made a surprise announcement: “Tomorrow, I will hold a press conference and will call for a vote of confidence.”

During his trip abroad, the president had been briefed on the report that said presidential secretary for general affairs Choi Do-sul had received 100 million won ($74,000) from SK Group. Since the president manages national affairs based on moral trust, Roh was determined to be judged by the citizens. Naturally, those who attended the dinner tried to dissuade him. They argued that the scandal was not an issue that called for a vote of confidence in the president’s very first year. But the president insisted on doing it regardless.

One of those present at the dinner who personally heard the president’s remarks later recalled that he felt Roh’s particular fastidiousness and obsession with morality.

I must take him at his word. President Roh acknowledged that he indeed used political funds in the course of his presidential election campaign. He argued that it was unavoidable in Korea’s political climate, and his use of political funds was minimal, less than 10 percent of what the rival Grand National Party had used. After his election victory, President Roh actually showed strong support for political reform and the eradication of corruption.

How then does the former president now find himself at the center of all sorts of scandals only a year after his retirement? The explanation for this contradiction lies in the pretentiousness of the president’s morality. This hypocrisy is summed up in the word “family.”

When Roh Gun-pyeong lobbied to keep Park Yeon-cha from being investigated by prosecutors, he described the Taekwang Industrial chairman as a member of the president’s “family.”

The concept of “family” must have been widely used among Roh’s associates. When Ahn Hee-jeong, a close aide of the former president, stood on trial for accusationd involving political funds in 2004, he said, “It felt like receiving a ‘local scholarship’ when I received money from businessmen in Busan region.”

He was referring to the money parents send to their children studying away from home. Roh’s circle seems to refer to political partners or sponsors as family.

Korean leaders’ so-called governing fund has evolved over time. Even after democratization, former President Roh Tae-woo managed such a fund, just as Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan did.

When the Blue House said it needed money, companies would share the burden in proportion to their revenues. The funds would then be personally handed over to the president. The Blue House would distribute the money to politicians in a “fair manner.” The funds were collected systematically and distributed without discrimination.

Former presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung did not personally handle the slush fund. Instead, those closest to the president, such as the presidential secretary for general affairs or family members, received money from conglomerates and allocated it at their discretion. Collection was unofficial, and allocation was selective. The total size of the fund decreased in the meantime. What an upgrade in its own way!

President Roh Moo-hyun took it a step further. The president did not personally receive money, and close aides received it only from the “family.”

After Roh’s victory in the presidential election, fund-raising channels became more limited. Roh found his moral justification. Who would criticize a family for helping one another?

Of course, family is a misleading name to call them. No matter how long the president and businessmen have been close, they cannot be a family, as their relationship was based on their separate needs and interests.

When a president receives money, it is recognized as a general bribe even if no specific favor is given in return. The position of the president is so powerful that it calls for an especially high moral standard.

Roh Moo-hyun’s style of governing fund management derives from a moral vacuum caused by mass hypnosis.

The challenge is how to get over the scandal and prevent similar ones. The money-driven political climate has not changed much. President Lee Myung-bak must learn a lesson from the case of former president Roh Moo-hyun, I am afraid to say.

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

by Oh Byung-sang
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