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THE WORLD

Kim's Laurels Appear to Be Greener Abroad

S. Korea: Sons' scandal woes are just one aspect of the lame-duck leader's problems. At home, the last year of a president's term is often the worst.

June 02, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — One might say he is a prophet scorned in his own land.

From afar, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung looks like one of the most respected leaders in the world. He is credited with reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula to their lowest level in more than 50 years, with expertly defusing an international monetary crisis and with presiding over a country that is richer and freer than at any time in its history.

But at home, the 77-year-old former dissident is increasingly the butt of jokes, an object of ridicule and pity.

His popularity has plunged as prosecutors close in on his three sons, who are allegedly enmeshed in a tangle of corruption scandals. His youngest son was arrested May 18 on charges that he took nearly $2 million in bribes from a lobbyist. Earlier in the month, one of the president's most trusted fund-raisers was arrested on another corruption charge. Besieged, Kim resigned from the ruling party.

Meanwhile, Kim's Nobel Peace Prize-winning "sunshine policy" of engagement with North Korea is at best in a period of eclipse.

Political cartoons in South Korean papers depict the president as a sickly old man unable to govern and unable to protect his family. It doesn't help that he was hospitalized in April for a leg injury.

"At this moment, he cannot govern the country. He has lost all trust and moral legitimacy," said Hahn Sung Deuk, a Korea University political scientist who is a specialist on the Korean presidency.

Part of Kim's problem is that he's a lame-duck president, in his last year in office and barred by South Korea's Constitution from seeking another five-year term. In other countries, Kim might be looking forward to a comfortable retirement--a chance to rest on his laurels, as it were--but the last year of a South Korean president's term is usually the most turbulent.

"Korean presidents always seem to end up as pariahs. In their last year in office, their power wanes and all sorts of things begin to come out," said Michael Breen, a Korea expert who is writing a biography of Kim. "There is a lot of money in the political business, and basically if they want to go after you, they can always find something. And if they can't get you, they go after your children."

It might be no coincidence that almost five years ago, the son of Kim's predecessor, Kim Young Sam, was arrested on similar corruption charges. And before that, the daughter of previous President Roh Tae Woo was embroiled in a scandal in which it was alleged (but never proved) that she accepted valuable gifts to influence government decisions.

Kim Dae Jung has not been accused of wrongdoing, but the scandals--which are, in the words of a diplomat here, "more complicated than a mosaic in a Byzantine cathedral"--touch on virtually every member of his immediate family.

His oldest son, 54-year-old Kim Hong Il--a member of the National Assembly who, like his father, was imprisoned in the 1980s by South Korea's military dictatorship--is accused by the political opposition of campaign fund-raising irregularities. The second son, Kim Hong Up, is under investigation for allegedly mishandling funds of the Kim Dae Jung Peace Foundation for the Asia-Pacific Region, a think tank the president set up with the hope it would polish his legacy.

In the Confucian tradition that holds sway here, fathers are held more responsible for their children's failings than in the West, so this scandal has seriously undermined Kim's presidency.

Ironically, the son who was arrested, 39-year-old Kim Hong Gul, had been sent to graduate school in the United States when his father became president to keep him out of this kind of trouble.

"His parents advised him not to go into business while his father was president," said a family associate who asked not to be identified. "They knew that in Korea, the relatives of presidents always get caught in a scandal, and they thought it safest for him to stay in school in the United States."

In keeping with the plan, Kim Hong Gul received a master's degree in international relations at USC and then went to work as a researcher at Pomona College. But people began to question how a graduate student could afford a $950,000 house in Rancho Palos Verdes and frequent first-class trips back to South Korea.

The authorities allege that the explanation lies with Choi Kyu Sun, a lobbyist with a knack for getting his picture taken with famous people.

Parlaying connections with the Korean government, Choi tried to interest such notables as global financier George Soros and singer Michael Jackson in various Korea ventures, without success. According to prosecutors, Choi thought that the youngest Kim could help his business, and he gave him stock options and bags stuffed with cash, much of it allegedly from a company seeking a contract for the Korean sports lottery.

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