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South Korea ex-leader to face prosecutors

Roh Moo-hyun, who ran for the presidency as a reformer, joins predecessors in being caught up in scandal.

April 28, 2009|John M. Glionna

SEOUL — Ex-President Roh Moo-hyun will enter familiar territory for a former South Korean head of state this week when he is grilled by prosecutors over his alleged role in a national bribery scandal.

The onetime human rights lawyer and judge is the third South Korean president since 1995 to face a corruption probe after leaving office. He is suspected of soliciting $6 million in bribes from a shoemaking magnate that were allegedly paid to his wife and son.

Roh, 62, has acknowledged that his wife accepted $1 million from footwear manufacturer Park Yeon-cha but denied involvement in any influence-peddling. He has characterized the $5 million his son got from Park as an investment loan.

The former president was summoned to meet with prosecutors this Thursday. Recent postings on his website suggest that he is appealing for public sympathy in the face of the disgrace of even being called before prosecutors.

"What I have to do now is bow to the nation and apologize," wrote Roh, who served as president from 2003 to 2008. "From now on, the name Roh cannot be a symbol of the values you pursue. I'm no longer qualified to speak about democracy and justice. . . . You should abandon me."

Analysts differ over the probe's political implications and what the succession of fallen ex-presidents says about the fledgling brand of democracy in South Korea, which only embraced public elections in the late 1980s.

Some suggest that the Roh investigation is fallout from an entrenched practice of the political party in power, in this case the Grand National Party, seeking to embarrass leaders of the opposition party it replaced -- Roh's Uri Party.

"Politics in any country is a knife fight, and South Korea is no exception. Whoever loses power is set upon by the new group in a very bare-knuckled fashion," said David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC.

Some analysts said new administrations in many nations are left to clean up the legal mess left by their predecessors. They pointed to President Obama's questions as to the legality of Bush administration policies regarding the alleged torture of suspected terrorists.

Before Roh's brush with scandal, former Presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were convicted in 1996 of crimes, including bribery and treason. Both were pardoned after two years in jail.

Although Roh Moo-hyun had entered Seoul's Blue House as a reformer, his administration soon showed it was not above scandal.

Top policy advisor Byeon Yang-kyoon was convicted of using his influence to get a female friend hired as a university professor. The appointment came to light after it was revealed that the candidate had faked her credentials.

During his term, Roh yielded to pressure from the South Korean parliament to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate reports that top officials from Samsung, the country's biggest company, had kept a slush fund to bribe politicians, prosecutors and others.

Many suspected that Roh initially resisted the move because he himself had accepted Samsung money during his run for the presidency. A top Samsung official was later found guilty of tax evasion.

Federal prosecutors have already questioned several of Roh's family members, including his wife and son, in connection with the suspected bribes involving the footwear company. News agencies here report that prosecutors will decide quickly whether Roh will be arrested following his questioning Thursday.

Several of Roh's former aides and associates are also suspected of accepting money from Park, the footwear manufacturer, in exchange for special consideration in business dealings. Park was indicted in December on unrelated bribery and tax-evasion charges.

Roh's elder brother also was indicted in December in connection with a separate bribery scandal, officials say.

Experts within South Korea say the general public has been dealt an emotional blow by the investigation into Roh.

Chun Sang-chin, a sociology professor at Sogang University, said many voters believed Roh's campaign pledge that he was different from other politicians.

"People are really disappointed because they had believed that Mr. Roh was free of moral problems," he said. "But now people think that Roh is no longer different from the others."

But one presidential scholar calls the Roh probe a sign that South Korea is moving past an era of corrupt presidents.

"All events involving presidents were kept inside a black box -- no one had access to the dark side of Korean politics," said Hahm Sung-deuk, a professor of public administration at Korea University.

"Past presidents had the authority to take as much money as they wanted from big business and appoint their own members of Congress. They were king. Now we no longer worship emperors who go above the law."

Hahm cited a front-page newspaper photo in Monday's Korea Times that showed Roh in 2007 appointing top prosecutor Lim Chae-jin, who is now in charge of investigating the former leader.

"A prosecutor investigating the president who appointed him," he said, "that would have never happened in the old days."

--

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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