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San Jose Mercury News, May 12, 2002

Scandal Tarnishes Kim's Legacy  
South Korean Leader's 'Sunshine Policy' toward North Threatened


SEOUL Kim Dae Jung, South Korea's dissident turned president, is an icon of democracy in the West. He suffered persecution by military dictators, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt and survived a death sentence on sedition charges. He then went on to become the first opposition leader to win the presidency.

But recent events in South Korea reveal a different picture of Kim, raising questions abut the kind of legacy he will leave behind when his five-year term ends in February. Suddenly, Kim is embroiled in a nexus of tawdry influence-peddling scandals involving allegations against his three sons, his wife and former aides. Kim has not been implicated directly, but his office was accused last week of engaging in a coverup.

The crisis comes at a time when Kim's bold policy of engagement with North Korea -- for which he was awarded the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize -- is on the firing line. Conservative opponents advocate a more skeptical approach to the communist nation. The Bush administration has further weakened Kim's prestige with a hard-line policy of confrontation with Pyongyang.

Kim's ability to ride out the storm may have long-term consequences for his progressive ''sunshine policy,'' a strategy of building trust with the North Korean government rather than antagonizing its quirky despot, President KimJong Il. Public-opinion polls have shown that while as many of 70 percent of South Koreans support his engagement with the North, only 30 percent support Kim's presidency.

Kim, 76, is a cagey politician with a genius for surviving misfortune, analysts say. Yet he suffers from the widespread public perception that he failed to discipline his sons, as a good Confucian father should, to prevent the current corruption scandals.

In the end, Kim seems much the same kind of politician as his corruption-tainted and autocratic predecessors, said Suh Byung Hoon, a political-science professor at Soongsil University in Seoul.

''South Koreans are very familiar with the two faces of Kim Dae Jung,'' said Suh, who describes himself as a ''critical supporter'' of the president. ''When I was in college, he was a symbol of democracy. But when he became president, his characteristics as a traditional authoritarian leader came to the surface.''

The survival of Kim's vision as a statesman rests on the shoulders of Roh Moo Hyun, the standard bearer for Kim's Millennium Democratic Party in the December presidential election.

Public-opinion polls give Roh a wide lead over his major opponent, Lee Hoi Chang. Lee, 67, a former judge, heads the opposition Grand National Party, a descendant of the military-backed political machine that controlled South Korea until Kim's election in 1997.

Lee and his party are hawkish on North Korea, deriding its leaders as insincere and relentlessly criticizing Kim's sunshine policy. After President Bush's remarks in January that North Korea is part of an ''axis of evil,'' Lee admonished the Kim administration not to be ''obsessed about its legacy'' and not to ''exploit inter-Korean relations for political purposes'' by launching new initiatives during his final year in office.

Kim's harshest critics accuse him of hypocrisy. ''He talked a lot about the nation's need for democracy and transparency, but he didn't follow his own principles once he came to power,'' said Park Jai Chan, an analyst at Sookmyung Women's University.

''People in Korea are not impressed by Kim's Nobel Peace Prize,'' Park said. ''His biggest flaw is that he's incapable of cleaning out the political corruption in his government. The story of the dark side of Kim Dae Jung hasn't been told to the international community.''

The scandal that has tormented Kim in recent weeks centers on allegations that his youngest son, 38-year-old Kim Hong Gui, received cash from a political lobbyist who had served on his father's election campaign staff as a fundraiser. Prosecutors arrested the lobbyist, Choi Kyu Sok, on April 19, charging him with taking bribes from a company that won a government license to run a sports-betting business.

Embarrassing information about Kim Hong Gui's financial ties to the lobbyist came out of a court case in Los Angeles, where Kim Hong Gui -- who has no apparent source of income -- reportedly lives in a home worth nearly $1 million. The plot, as told by the South Korean press, involves one of Kim Dae Jung's bitter political enemies, who reportedly settled out of court in a libel suit against the son.

Unrelated scandals targeting Kim's two older sons by his first marriage, his current wife and several political aides also have made headlines. None of the allegations rises to the scale of massive corruption that disgraced several of Kim's predecessors, but they appear to be serious enough to damage his reputation.

Early last week , the scandal deepened when Choi, the former aide, alleged that Kim's office had engaged in a coverup. A presidential representative rejected the charge as the words of a ''madman.''

Kim had issued a public apology last weekend, vowing to investigate the charges against his sons, and he resigned in atonement as a member of his ruling party.

Despite it all, some observers see a silver lining.

''In an odd way, these scandals may be a sign of progress, and a measure of freer press coverage and greater transparency in Korean society,'' said Scott Snyder, a Korea scholar with the Asia Foundation in Seoul. ''With each successive president, there seem to be fewer zeros in the amount of money that's involved.''

Analysts say there have been no credible claims that Kim himself ispersonally involved in any of the alleged money transactions.

''We believe Kim Dae Jung is clean,'' said Kim Chong Su, director of the policy department at the Korean branch of Transparency International, an anti-corruption advocacy organization based in Berlin. ''But we're now starting to see evidence that the allegations against his family are not just politically motivated claims by the opposition parties.''

Kim, who was hospitalized in April for several days because of health complications related to a leg injury he suffered while in prison, was not available for an interview for this article.

''The scale and intensity of corruption may not be as bad as it was in the past,'' said Han Sang Jin, chair of the Presidential Commission on Policy Planning, a government think tank. ''But in our culture, parents are responsible for the behavior of their sons.''

Jung Yun Joo, chief editorial writer for the progressive Hankyoreh newspaper, has been one of Kim's most loyal supporters over the years, but he has written several editorials calling for the president to apologize to the nation and bring Kim Hong Gui back from exile to face his problems.

Kim Dae Jung ''should have been much more active in preventing these scandals,'' Jung said. ''In Korean society we have a long tradition of crony capitalism, and business people who want special favors do what they can to seduce people close to power. It's very sad, but it seems the president's sons fell into that trap. And they've damaged his credibility and prestige.''


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