Fri, 19 Dec 2003

Corruption? A good time to fix it!

Shim Jae Hoon, The Korea Herald, Asia News Network, Seoul

The stormy debate over illegal campaign funds is threatening to get out of hand. Emotion has overtaken what ought to be cool reasoning on how to fix the country's endemic political corruption.

Koreans everywhere angrily condemn their politicians as Mafioso for using underground methods in extorting tens of billions of won from business groups in the presidential election campaign last December. Investigators are dredging up ugly details, such as the secret delivery of a truckload of cash on a highway to people from the opposition Grand National Party candidate Lee Hoi-chang.

But don't let lurid details like these keep us from pursuing the reform of our electoral institutions and laws. No candidate to elective offices in Korea has ever been freed from suspicions of violating legally-set ceilings on campaign spending. It's an old problem that crops up every four years at all levels of the electoral process.

Nor are we blind to the destructive side-effects of such corruptive practices. Remember? Within hours of winning his election in 1992, former president Kim Young-sam loudly worried about the economic impact of such a wanton spending spree. Unless some restraints were imposed on the illegal raising and spending of campaign funds, corruption would eventually "ruin" the nation's economy, he warned.

That was a decade ago. Since then, neither he, nor Kim Dae- jung who succeeded him, ever did anything to fix the problem. The reason for this was simple: Corrupt campaigning has been treated mainly as the problem of the losers, not the victor.

President Roh Moo-hyun apparently has a different notion. He won the election, but he remains unforgiving of an ample amount of illegal funds mobilized by his rival with good connections to the big business community. In pressing for reform of campaign malpractices, Roh is underscoring his reputation as a reform- minded leader.

But is that an accurate picture? Judging by his recent remarks, he seems bothered not so much by corruption itself as by the amount illegally raised by his opponents. And he himself, whether knowingly or not, seems hardly to have been above board. Several of his close aides and financial supporters have been placed under detention on similar charges of illegal fundraising.

Roh has argued that the amount of illegal funds his camp raised should be far lower than Lee's and he has threatened to step down from office if it were established that his camp had raised one-tenth of the amount illegally raised by his opponent.

That argument trivializes the whole issue of political corruption, but then he has a notoriety for making gaffes.

As for Lee, it wouldn't be surprising if he regarded the current uproar over his campaign fundraising as a veiled form of political retribution. We all know that it's part of the local political culture. His decision to cooperate with prosecution investigators on suspicions relating to his campaign deserves to be lauded, but his party officials vigorously attack President Roh for raising questionable funds by an equal measure, if not more. In short, they are in for a tit-for-tat fight, rather than keen on establishing the truth.

At the same time, Lee is calling on the authorities to spare guilty party fundraisers from prosecution, arguing that he alone should be held accountable. That may be an unacceptable proposition, given the fact that this wasn't the first time his fundraisers have grossly violated the law.

In the 1997 election campaign one of Lee's schoolmates, the former deputy director of National Tax Administration, stood accused of squeezing businessmen by brandishing his official position. He is now standing trial on that count.

Such act comes from Korea's long held political culture, in which it's not a shame to break the law for your boss. Indeed, such infraction is regarded as a show of selfless sacrifice deserving of generous rewards afterwards. This is why winning the election at all cost -- rather than by fair rules -- is considered crucial.

This distorted Confucian-based culture, placing personal ties above objective social interest, lies at the bottom of many of the ills that afflict Korean society. Removing this kind of medieval mindset is essential to move Korea to a society based more on rationally shared interests.

In cleaning up the present mess, it's essential for government prosecutors to rethink their policy of sparing businessmen under the misguided notion of "protecting" the economy from disruption. By sparing them from prosecution, they not only allow guilty businessmen to go on challenging the limits of law, but also flout the interests of honest investors.

A good example of this may be the recent crisis involving the energy giant SK Group, which has virtually collapsed after paying billions of won to Lee's campaign coffer. It falsified accounts to cover this up. Korea's credibility will be irrevocably shattered unless business groups here find a better -- and more respectable way -- of furthering their interests.

In short, the current storm must not obscure our goal of "seeking truth from facts" by seizing this opportunity to change our bad ways. Let's not kid ourselves: Despite all this brouhaha, Korea couldn't have wished for better timing in attacking our age-old problem of corruption. That's the silver lining behind the clouds.