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Tearful Roh forever tainted

He promised a “clean” administration, but the career of South Korea's ex-president has ended in scandal.

Anti-North Korea and pro-U.S. conservative protesters shout slogans demanding prosecutors arrest former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in front of the Supreme Public Prosecutor's Office in Seoul, April 30, 2009. The boxes read: "Arrest (Roh) immediately!" and "$6 million," an amount that the protesters say Roh received in a bribery scandal. (Lee Jae-Won/Reuters)

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.