Admitting guilt: a Korean lesson (1)

(Read at the November 10 Kilosbayan Forum)

“I feel ashamed and full of remorse for betraying the expectations of the people,” said Roh Tae-woo.  As president of South Korea between 1988 and 1993, Roh admitted taking illegal contributions from businessmen amounting to $654 million.  From these illicit funds, he said, he put away $220 million in “false-name” bank accounts.

The spectacle of a teary-eyed former general and former president confessing to corruption on national television intrigued many Filipinos.  “Will we ever see a Filipino politician do a Roh Tae-woo,” they wondered.

The answer, I think, is not to be found in any distinctive Korean or Buddhist tradition of honor that is lacking in either Filipino or Christian culture. Ethical principles governing behavior in public office are as clear and as abundant in the Filipino cultural tradition as they are in societies like Japan and South Korea.  Corruption is just another word for stealing.  And stealing is considered wrong everywhere, regardless of the culture.

The difference between Korea and the Philippines, I believe, lies not in the belief system, but in the vigor and resolve with which the Korean political opposition — both in parliament and in the streets —  has pursued the objective of terminating the unholy alliance between corrupt generals and unaccountable businessmen.  This partnership flourished during the Cold War when military autocrats ruled the country in the name of national security and economic development.

Today, under President Kim Young-sam, a   civilian leader, South Korea is going through a transition period — not unlike the first few years after our own EDSA — in which the substance of formal democratic institutions, the justice system for one, is being tested.

It is now clear that Roh Tae-woo’s TV confession came as an attempt to preempt the filing by the public prosecutor of a tightly documented case. Viewed from this perspective, Roh’s admission of guilt seems  to have been driven less by an overwhelming ethical imperative  and more by a wish to be forgiven instead of arrested, jailed and forever humiliated.

In his public statement, Roh tried to minimize the gravity of his misdeeds.  He said that taking money in exchange for favors was a traditional practice in South Korean politics.  These were political donations to the party, he claimed, not bribes.  He added that  these funds were used for political campaigns and social welfare programs — a rationalization that is reminiscent of the excuses offered by all Filipino politicians who accept jueteng money.

An opposition legislator,  Park Kye Dong, a former student activist, relentlessly pursued the case against the former president.  The Nov. 6 issue of Newsweek offered this account: “With the help of new bank-disclosure laws, Park soon obtained documents showing the existence of three falsename accounts at Shinhan Bank.  On Oct. 19, Park went public in a speech to Parliament, accusing Roh of holding more than 40 false-name accounts in all.”

Unlike many such congressional exposes in the Philippines, Park’s disclosure took a life of its own.  It did not have to await investigation by a committee or sub-committee of colleagues in either chamber of Congress.  Again, from the Newsweek report: “Before the week was out, Roh’s former head of security had admitted to prosecutors that he personally managed a total of four secret accounts holding $63 million  at Shinhan Bank.  Prosecutors soon found  $60 million more stashed away in another financial firm, and Roh had little choice left but to make a clean breast of the matter.”

Roh was probably hoping he would be shown the same compassionate mercy that he had extended to his own predecessor, General Chun Doo-hwan in 1988 when he was confronted with similar corruption charges.  General Chun seized power in 1979 and served as Korea’s president from 1981 to 1987. Roh Tae-woo found himself in the delicate position of having to punish his comrade and predecessor while sparing him a stay in prison.  Chun was made to surrender two of his homes plus $20 million, and go into internal exile for one year as a penitent in a Buddhist monastery.   He never went to prison.

Today, President Kim Young-sam faces exactly the same dilemma.  Roh recruited him in 1990 to join a 3-party merger,  and was instrumental in drafting him as the government’s presidential candidate in the 1992 election. Many suspect that Roh’s slush funds bank-rolled Kim Young-sam’s successful bid for the presidency.  In an interesting twist, President Kim’s opponent in that election, Kim Dae Jung, himself admitted receiving $2.6 million from Roh Tae-woo in 1992.

Ironically, Kim Young-sam ran and won on a platform of moral reform.  On the strength of his pledge to rid Korean society completely of corruption, he became the first civilian to be elected president after 32 years of military rule. Young Korean students demonstrating in the streets now firmly hold him to that promise.

I do not believe that Roh Tae-woo and Chun Doo-hwan were any more sensitive and honorable than their Filipino or Indonesian counterparts.    Their public manifestations of remorse and readiness to face the consequences of their actions came only after it became clear that nothing could save them.

The ones who hunted down the corrupt generals in Korea came from a new generation bent on extirpating the corrupt system that had flourished under the auspices of unchecked power.  In the absence of a free press, the burden of substantiating the charges fell on the shoulders of  young politicians and crusading prosecutors who tapped their generational connections in the business community to uncover traces of pay-offs and secret accounts.  It was a crusade that was consciously linked to the democratization of Korean society.


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