Thu, 23 Nov 2000

S. Korean crusader declares war on corruption

SEOUL: President Kim Dae-jung has declared a "war on corruption." During a recent interview with a TV network, Kim said it would be the "last war" of his administration to drive out corruption from our society.

Fighting corruption has indeed been among Kim's avowed policy priorities. Launching a presidential commission for anti- corruption movement last year, Kim said, "Without uprooting corruption, reforms will be impossible and few Korean firms will emerge globally competitive."

He said that the rise and fall of any country has been related, without exception, to corruption.

Inspections will begin this week of government agencies and state enterprises as well as leading businessmen, politicians and other public figures. An interagency team has been formed for a nationwide crackdown on irregularities.

In a meeting presided over by Prime Minister Lee Han-dong yesterday, cabinet ministers and officials from Chong Wa Dae agreed to hold a monthly review session prior to reporting to President Kim on their investigations. They also agreed to introduce a system for citizens' monitoring and request for inspection.

It is good that the government is taking a desirable approach. This time the purification drive may not end up as a political event and citizens' participation will probably enhance its objectivity.

Nonetheless, it still remains highly doubtful whether the "all-out war" will accomplish its intended goal. There are various reasons for this skepticism.

In the first place, it is not a good time to start another "war," no matter how well intended. Already the nation is fed up with protracted partisan conflict in the political community.

Few other segments are enjoying peace and harmony let alone the deepening worries over an economic recession. And very regrettably few people believe the government agencies responsible for the inspection are clean and powerful enough.

Public confidence in the prosecution has fallen after last week's skirmish in the National Assembly. The prosecution's two highest commanders avoided impeachment but only through a shameless filibustering by the ruling party representatives.

Nobody believes that the prosecution is innocent even through they were not impeached. The prosecution had already lost the public trust due to its dishonest investigations of high-profile corruption scandals.

Then, it is not only high-ranking officials who are taking bribes under this administration. The nation was appalled to learn that a lowly hygienic worker at the presidential office took a large amount of kickbacks for a dubious role he played in a recent illegal loan case.

If all his bosses were impeccably clean-handed, how could this "cleaner" keep profitable dealings with a successful venture capitalist? Was he really the only dirty fish in a pool of clean water?

The prosecutors hardly seemed to make earnest efforts to investigate the truth in this case in a way reminiscent of its mysterious probe last year into another highly controversial graft scandal involving the wives of cabinet ministers. Therefore, it looks very likely that the ambitious clean-up drive may fail.

The only key to success is in the hands of President Kim. He must ensure totally fair and thorough investigations on all of his close aides and confidants suspected to be implicated in all corruption cases.

Otherwise, the campaign may end up justifying the speculation in the opposition party that it is merely a political show to intimidate it.

Even fair and thorough investigations won't be enough to uproot corruption in our society. A more systemic approach is necessary to discourage people from giving and taking bribes.

In this context, the National Assembly is urged to recover from the current fiasco as quickly as possible to work on a pile of legislation bills, including those on anti-corruption and money laundering. A network of hundreds of civil society organizations submitted petitions for legislation. The previous parliament put off deliberating the bills until the expiry of its term.

President Kim pledged to see to it that the laws are passed by the end of this year. The nation needs legal devices to prevent corruption and punish those responsible. The lawmakers must not sit on the bills again due to murky political calculations.

-- The Korea Herald/Asia News Network