[Viewpoint] Piles of cash and deja vu

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[Viewpoint] Piles of cash and deja vu

President Lee Myung-bak recently held a press conference commemorating his fourth year in office. A successful president would have been proud to list his accomplishments of the last four years and elaborate on his plans for his final year. It should have been a happy moment for both the president and the nation at large. But the president spent that precious time with the public ear lamenting and confessing his anger over the scandals involving his closest aides and family members.

Talk about deja vu. This episode comes around every five years. The sons of presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung served prison sentences of more than four years. The scandal involving President Roh Moo-hyun and his relatives cost the ex-president his own life. President Lee Myung-bak’s elder brother finds himself in the soup, and it’s a soup with a very Korean flavor.

As the curtain raises on the president’s final year, we find very familiar props on stage: cash in envelopes, bundles of checks and crates full of bank notes. From the storage area of the eldest son of former President Kim Dae-jung, we discovered a bundle of 1 billion won ($885,000) worth of checks. His friends and aides made their employees cash in checks and rebuy old checks so that the issuers wouldn’t be traceable. He preferred checks because they took up less space. He also happened to frequent a drinking parlor that was favored by the son of President Kim Young-sam five years back. Even the scenery was the same.

The late President Roh Moo-hyun is no longer with us, but skeletons in his closet still haunt his family. A right-wing civic group recently filed charges against his daughter. She is suspected of transferring a suspicious 1.3 billion won to purchase a luxury villa in New York. The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office’s central investigation unit is currently probing the case. Pictures of boxes alleged to be stuffed with money have been presented as evidence. The photos have been going around on the Web.

In President Lee’s term, bank notes cascaded from the closet. Prosecutors investigating allegations involving ruling party Representative Lee Sang-deuk, the president’s elder brother, hit upon a suspicious flow of funds. They found about 700 million won in his secretary’s personal account. Lee claims the money came from him and that he placed it in his secretary’s account to use for office expenses. He told prosecutors that the money accumulated from sales of his properties and cash gifts he received from guests during various family events.

Prosecutors have yet to associate any illegality to that money. But the fact that such a sum got whacked around puts the incumbent president in the same infamous category associated with his scandal-tainted predecessors. A whopping 700 million won is not loose change for anyone. It is more than a life’s earnings for most people and the dream of riches for a middle-class family.

Lee casually said the money was “extra” savings. If that’s the amount that’s “extra,” we can’t imagine how much he got in total from real estate sales and cash gifts.

When he ran for the National Assembly, Lee didn’t disclose those sums to election authorities as part of his wealth. A false report of assets can disqualify a candidate. Strictly speaking, Lee has been serving in his legislative office illegitimately. He violated the law again for failing to disclose those assets to the legislature. The National Assembly should have penalized him or reported him to judicial authorities.

Corruption has had different style in each government. During the early stages of the Kim Young-sam government, a chief presidential secretary collected money at lunchtime. In the Kim Dae-jung administration, corruption came from storage areas of an apartment. Instant noodle boxes with cash went around during the Roh Moo-hyun government. The same stench has now been found in the closet of the president’s brother.

Four years ago, everyone was against the elder Lee’s running for legislative office after his brother was elected president. He should have chosen a low profile job to help his younger brother. Many advised the elder Lee to make a sacrifice.

If he had paid heed to that advice, his brother’s government may have not come to such a sad end. If he served on an overseas mission, he could have saved his brother’s and his own dignity. We would have been spared another episode of bundles of cash and the president’s family. The Lee brothers chose not to remember the past and will now have to pay the price.

by Kim Jin

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

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