[Viewpoint] For Park, a bungled beginning

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[Viewpoint] For Park, a bungled beginning

The outgoing President Lee Myung-bak’s fall from grace is no less disastrous than those of his predecessors. The knights of the round table that helped to put Lee in the presidential seat five years ago are one by one falling prey to the all-too-familiar, late-term scene of being paraded to the prosecutors’ office and, later, prison.

Lee Sang-deuk, the elder brother of the president, and ruling party Representative Chung Doo-un are the latest to be summoned by prosecutors, following in the shameful path ventured down by the president’s in-law, friend, close aide and political mentor. With his big brother - dubbed kingmaker - also being swept up by the currents, Lee now has just his wife and Lee Jae-oh of the ruling party left among his closest confidantes. It is a sad legacy, and one that has been handed down for the last five administrations. Will the incoming government be any different?

To put an end to this disgraceful tradition, the presidential hopefuls must demonstrate exceptional will from the moment they announce their bids to run. Their campaign teams must be given strict orders regarding the importance of integrity to try and keep the devil of corruption at bay.

Park Geun-hye, a front-runner in the opinion polls among conservative candidates, is expected to announce her bid to run in the presidential race this week, and she has already tapped Kim Chong-in to co-chair her election campaign committee. Kim, a former secretary to former President Roh Tae-woo, lost his legislative seat for taking bribes worth a total of 200 million won ($175,200). Park has already got off to a bad start by fielding someone with a criminal record to head her campaign.

The Saenuri Party sustained a majority of seats in the April 11 legislative election, but at least some credit should go to the potty-mouthed radiocaster Kim Yong-min, who messed up the election for the main opposition with his erratic behavior and ugly comments. Some members of the Democratic United Party grumbled that Kim cost them at least 15 seats. If not for him, the DUP could have outnumbered the Saenuri Party 142 to 137, they argued.

By the same token, Park may have overestimated her abilities in securing the win. If the party she led in an emergency capacity had been crushed in the last election, she could not have picked someone with a highly questionable past to lead her campaign. In other words, if she had been humbled, she would have had to find a figurehead with a spotless resume.

The scandal involving Kim is nothing short of mind-boggling. He was the senior presidential secretary for economic affairs to Roh Tae-woo in 1992, putting him in a position to oversee the management of conglomerates and financial institutions.

He ended up accepting 200 million won in bribes from the president of the now-defunct Dongwha Bank. As the inflation rate has shot up nearly seven-fold over the last two decades, that would be worth 1.3 billion won by today’s standards - or almost double the bribes that the president’s brother, Lee Sang-deuk, is suspected of taking.

Kim, who was initially sentenced to five years in prison when he first went to trial, was also deeply involved in raising 400 billion won in slush funds for Roh.

Kim acted as a middleman between chaebol owners and the president. In 1996, he was finally indicted with two more of Roh’s key aides, Lee Won-jo and Keum Jin-ho, for gathering funds illegally from conglomerate owners. For the parts they played, they were each granted suspended sentences of two years and six months.

All of which begs the question: Is Kim really the right man for the job of spearheading a campaign that is tasked with, among other issues, reforming the chaebol?

Key figures of the Lee Myung-bak government have been imprisoned for accepting smaller bribes of 100 million won, but Kim effectively got off scot-free despite the immense level of dirt that piled up around him. Moreover, Park has vowed that, if she is elected president, she will not pardon any corrupt bureaucrats, politicians or chaebol owners.

We live in a country cursed by follies of the past. Former President Roh Moo-hyun jumped off a cliff during an investigation into his wife on bribery charges, and many before him have been seen weeping and beating their chests as their relatives and friends go to prison on charges of corruption.

The main opposition party’s floor leader has also served a jail term for pocketing 1 million won while serving as the president’s chief of staff. And now we have the case of Kim, a proven cheat who is emerging as the right hand man of the nation’s potential next leader.

The Korean public may be suffering from chronic amnesia, and political leaders habitually use pardons as a form of anesthetic. Corrupt politicians and bureaucrats are easily pardoned and restored to positions of good faith.

President Kim Young-sam’s son, Hyun-chul, keeps bidding to be elected despite his past wrongdoings, and President Kim Dae-jung’s key aide, Park Jie-won, is now the floor leader of the DUP.

Additionally, Lee Seok-gi became a lawmaker despite his suspicious links to North Korea after he was pardoned by President Roh Moo-hyun.

Now Kim, one of Roh’s old advisers, is readying a comeback to center stage.

Is this seriously the best Park can do in terms of personnel appointments? Surely it’s time to change with the times, rather than appear to be behind them. As such, she is looking decidedly out of fashion.

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