SEOUL — A historic corruption trial, rich in potential to humiliate past and present political and business leaders, began today for former President Roh Tae Woo and 14 other defendants.
Roh, 63, was shown on nationwide television dressed in white prison pajamas and stepping off a prison bus to enter Seoul District Criminal Court. In a gesture of respect for his status, he was not roped or handcuffed, as is customary when prisoners arrive for trial. He looked haggard but calm.
Roh, who has publicly admitted amassing a $653-million slush fund while in office from 1988 to 1993, is accused of receiving about $370 million of that total as bribes. Roh has insisted that the entire slush fund came from political donations.
Eight defendants, all of them chairmen of major business conglomerates, are accused of bribing Roh. Another top businessman is accused of money laundering, while five former Roh aides are accused of helping him collect or hide the money.
A few minutes before Roh's arrival at the courthouse, his former chief bodyguard, Lee Hyun Woo, accused of money laundering, was taken off a separate prison bus. He also wore white prison garb, but his arms and hands were firmly tied in the usual fashion. Grim-faced, he ignored questions shouted out by reporters.
The business tycoon defendants, who currently are free, arrived individually by car. They wore suits and overcoats but had to endure the humiliation of being shown on national television as they headed into the courthouse.
The defendants were to face a three-judge panel for today's largely procedural hearing. Their trials might be separated.
Roh, jailed since mid-November, faces a sentence of 10 years to life if convicted.
Eight of the businessmen were indicted without arrest, and one, Hanbo Group Chairman Chung Tae Soo, was released from jail last week on medical parole. If convicted, they could face imprisonment or escape with only fines.
The aides who face charges, besides Roh's bodyguard, include Lee Tae Jin, a former presidential accountant, also accused of money laundering. Accused of helping Roh accumulate his slush fund are former banking official Lee Won Jo, legislator Kum Jin Ho, who is a Roh brother-in-law, and former presidential economic advisor Kim Jong In.
Lee Won Jo, who had a reputation as a financial wizard during Roh's administration, is widely believed to know many secrets about the slush fund. Roh has so far remained silent on many issues, including the question of whether some of the money was funneled to President Kim Young Sam's 1992 election campaign, possibly in violation of legal spending limits.
Opposition leader Kim Dae Jung has charged that Kim Young Sam received $290 million for his campaign. The president has denied "directly" accepting any money but has avoided comment on whether funds might have flowed into his campaign by other routes.
The trial thus has the potential to drag down not only the defendants but also other pillars of the South Korean establishment.
After today the trial is expected to recess until mid-January.
The eight business leaders facing trial who were indicted without arrest are:
* Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun Hee, accused of giving $32.6 million in bribes.
* Daewoo Group Chairman Kim Woo Choong, accused of giving $31.3 million in bribes.
* Dong Ah Group Chairman Choi Won Sok, accused of giving $30 million in bribes.
* Jinro Group Chairman Chang Jin Ho, accused of giving $13.1 million in bribes.
* Daelim Group Chairman Lee Joon Yong, accused of giving $9.1 million in bribes.
* Daeho Construction Chairman Lee Kon, accused of giving $6.5 million in bribes.
* Dongbu Group Chairman Kim Joon Ki, accused of giving $5.2 million in bribes.
* Daewoo Corp. Chairman Lee Kyung Hoon, accused of money laundering.
With tickets available to the public for 80 courtroom seats, a line of would-be observers formed outside the courthouse Sunday evening.
"Since this is a historic trial, I wanted to see how the prosecutors do questioning Roh," said an elderly man from South Cholla province, a hotbed of resistance to former military regimes. "I wanted to see it with my own eyes."