An ominous deja vu
“Lawmakers, although they are not holding knifes, are all robbers,” Hanbo Group Chairman Chung Tae-soo said during an interrogation at the central investigation department of the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office on the night of April 7, 1997.
Earlier in the day, Chung dropped a bombshell revelation when he was testifying before a special parliamentary committee investigating a corruption scandal involving his company.
He had long remained tight-lipped about an alleged list of politicians he paid, but he broke his silence that day and disclosed that Rep. Kim Deog-ryong of the New Korea Party, Rep. Kim Yong-hwan of the United Liberal Democrats and Rep. Kim Sang-hyun of the National Congress for New Politics had received money.
The three men were, at the time, some of the most powerful politicians in the ruling and opposition parties. The hearing, which had progressed without much to note, had suddenly completely turned around.
From then on, Chung led the hearing. He even raised his voice so loudly that lawmakers had to check his attitude. But although he did not unveil the entire list, he made it clear that a proverbial nuclear bomb would be dropped in the political arena if he decided to open his mouth.
“Prosecutor-General Kim Ki-soo said Chung Tae-soo had a list. Who selected the politicians?” Rep. Kim Jae-chun asked.
“I cannot testify because I may be in trouble if those politicians face criminal charges,” Chung answered.
“Depending on your words, someone will be charged with bribery, while others could face charges that they violated the political funding law. In fact, some people received a lot of money from you but their names aren’t even in the newspaper yet. Isn’t it true that most politicians, whenever you offer money, don’t turn down the offer?” Kim asked.
“Yes,” Chung replied.
Shim Je-ryoon, the head of the central investigation department of the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office, did not miss the opportunity.
After the hearing ended, he did not send Chung to a detention center but summoned him to the prosecution and carried out an overnight investigation.
Chung, who had long insisted that he never paid bribes and didn’t recall giving money, demonstrated a superb memory. He testified in great detail over the dates and locations of those financial handouts. He remembered that one lawmaker, after receiving a box full of money, got into trouble with a hotel staff member, opting to move the box on his own, Chung said.
Another lawmaker, Chung said, tripped and fell while carrying a box full of cash.
After that night, Chung closed his mouth again. He even pretended as if he was suffering from aphasia. But prosecutors had no trouble summoning the 33 politicians on his list. Those politicians, who denied having a relationship with Chung, admitted to the charges after the prosecution showed them Chung’s detailed testimonies.
Korea, however, did not have a law to punish those receiving political funds. If prosecutors could not prove the money was in return for a favor, there was no way to prosecute a lawmaker for receiving it.
In the end, only eight of the 33 politicians were punished for graft. And the scandal triggered the revision of the political funding law.
Today, a politician faces up to five years in prison or up to a 10 million won ($9,250) fine for receiving illegal political funds. Instead, official campaign funds are reimbursed with tax money. Since then, it appeared that the practice of political funds became much more transparent.
But this is simply deja vu. I wrote about the scandal 18 years ago when I covered the prosecution, and Sung Wan-jong’s list is a similar repeat. It feels familiar, although those involved are different people.
Just like in the past, the people on the list have denied the accusations, but this scandal is quickly snowballing. Chung’s list included National Assembly Speaker Kim Soo-han, the second highest-ranking official in the country, and Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo, the second-highest official in the administration.
The only difference is that Chung was alive at the time and Sung is dead. So we cannot expect any additional testimony. This shows what path the prosecution needs to take.
Shim, who headed the investigation into Chung’s list and now practices as a lawyer, called Sung Wan-jong “the second Chung Tae-soo.”
He said Sung and Chung were similar in their extensive lobbying abilities and strong memory, and even gave advice to the prosecutors investigating Sung’s list.
“Mun Mu-il, the lead prosecutor, must carry out the investigation with the determination that he has already turned in his resignation. That’s what you need to do to investigate a living power.
“Even during the Chun Doo Hwan regime, the president could not order a case closed, even though he was furious, when the prosecution presented clear evidence,” Shim said.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 17, Page 34
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Cheong Chul-gun