Tearful Roh forever tainted

SEOUL, South Korea — Choppers hovered over a small village swamped by the press, protesters, riot police, and security guards. All eyes were on the residence of former president Roh Moo-hyun, waiting for him to emerge and head to the prosecutor's office for questioning on an alleged bribery scandal.

The press has generally described the scandal surrounding Roh as a “national disgrace,” as yet another leader has been linked to corruption. All four of Roh’s predecessors had their images tainted in bribery scandals, landing two of them in jail along with the sons of the other two.

People expected Roh, who came into office in 2003, to be different. With a background as a human rights lawyer and a reputation for fighting for justice and progress in the political ring, Roh achieved celebrity status during his presidential campaigning and a landslide victory in the elections.

During his presidential term, he reformed election laws, determined to root out the practice of mixing money with politics. Roh prided his liberal administration on being “clean,” but has ended up tearfully apologizing for disappointing the public.

Roh has been accused of involvement in the corrupt payment of a total of $6 million in two separate cases: $1 million that went to his wife, and $5 million that went to his brother’s son-in-law. The charges against him stemmed from the investigation of a businessman known to be one of Roh’s close patrons. The supporter was charged last year of tax evasion and bribery in a separate case.

“It’s a great misfortune for this country that former presidents, over and over again, face questioning by prosecutors,” political science professor Lee Nam-young from Sejong University said.

The amount of money involved in this case is meager compared to former presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo who were imprisoned more than a decade ago for receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from conglomerates. The two were later pardoned.

Lee said that although this does not mean the Roh Moo-hyun case cannot be dismissed, there is the need to face reality: politics is never cheap.

“Politics that doesn't cost money is of course an ideal, but in reality it’s impossible,” he said. “To some extent, I think Koreans tend to approach the use of money in politics from too much of a moralistic point of view." In other words, people have to accept that the bar of moral standards may yet be set too high for the practices in Korean politics.  

But morality is one of the virtues Roh most treasured, and some suggest it may have been his undeterred determination to shape Korean politics to fit his ideals, even after stepping down, that got him into trouble.

“People all know that this is political revenge to some extent,” said Korea University’s public administration professor Hahm Sung Deuk. The conservative government of Lee Myung-bak may have dealt with it differently if Roh hadn’t tried to meddle in politics, he added. By opening a website and blogging on a regular basis, the former president kept his communication channels wide open to the public. There were even rumors that he would run in the general elections. 

“If he had stayed quiet, the administration could perhaps have just turned a blind eye to it,” Hahm said, “generally former presidents are quiet in Korea at least for one or two years, but he couldn’t wait, could he?"

And as evidence of the influence Roh still wields in the country, hundreds of supporters showed up at the Supreme Prosecutor's Office to catch a glimpse of the former president. With yellow balloons, Roh's symbolic color, his fans stood nose to nose with riot police for hours holding signs expressing loyalty to the former president.

Roh is the only ex-leader of the country to have a visible and pro-active fan base. His support group “Nosamo,” short for “group of people who love Roh” in Korean, boasts more than 111,000 members nationwide. The group declined to comment for this article.

Although some may be disappointed by the recent allegations, Hahm explains it could still be a sign of progress in the country.

It is corruption, but in a different form. In the past, bribery scandals were on a grander scale and were symbolic of close ties between business and politics. This time, the money that allegedly went to Roh came with no strings.

However, it would appear that the days of handing over wads of cash in return of favors may be over.

What has been regarded by some in South Korea as a loss of face has in other quarters been seen as an example of respect for rules and procedure.

“It may look like disorder now, but it’s actually a path to a new order in society,” Hahm said. The prosecutor's office, led by an appointee of Roh, sees no problem in digging as deeply as it needs.

More GlobalPost dispatches on South Korea:

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Young Koreans storm the greens

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