A land development scandal that already has resulted in the arrest of five lawmakers, a major industrialist and a personal secretary to President Roh Tae Woo, could prove damaging to South Korea's still fragile institutions of democracy.
Roh replaced two Cabinet ministers and the mayor of Seoul on Monday to signal a crackdown on corruption. On Tuesday, he reshuffled key posts in the ruling party and appeared on national television to renew his "firm resolution to become a clean president."
But there is widespread suspicion here that a prosecutor's report released Monday deliberately avoided implicating top officials.
"Most Korean people suspect the Blue House is behind this," said Han Won Sang, professor of sociology at Seoul National University, referring specifically to Roh and his core of inner advisers. "Those arrested are minor actors."
The scandal centers on Chang Tae Soo, chairman of the Hanbo Group, one of Korea's giant conglomerates. Chang purchased a large piece of land in Seoul's Suso district and allegedly paid huge bribes to lawmakers and administrators to change the area's greenbelt zoning classification so he could build a large housing complex on the lot.
The alleged bribes were reported in the press earlier this month. The ensuing arrests of lawmakers from both the ruling party and the opposition party have disgusted a public already cynical about their leaders.
"There is a sense of hopelessness," Han said. He said that 70% of the people he surveyed in a December poll distrust politicians of all stripes and that a current poll probably would raise that number to 90%.
The cynicism in the public over the widespread corruption in government could help to undermine the power of the National Assembly.
While the assembly may have become corrupt, analysts say that it has succeeded in bringing wide-ranging interests, including many radicals, into the political system. Some of them predict that a populace disappointed with its political system could once again turn to the streets by the millions to demand reform as it did in 1987.
Students and various dissident groups are already planning demonstrations for this weekend.
"At the moment, the people's outrage is beyond imagination," said the Rev. Soh Kyung Suk, general secretary of the Citizen's Coalition for Economic Justice, a public interest group. "The question is how to organize the people's anger to bring about reform." The group hopes to build a coalition that will draw more than 1 million people into the streets this spring to protest Roh's handling of the recent scandal and to demand fundamental reforms.
Students, who have played a key role in toppling Korean governments in the past, have recently elected radicals to their student government and Soh worries that there could be a revival of more violent student protest.
Some analysts see even more ominous signs from recent events. They point to a small faction of former prosecutors in the ruling party who have won the favor of Roh and who may now be exploiting the scandal to extend their power.
"This is the beginning of the decline of parliamentary politics in Korea," said Chang Dal Joong, professor of political science at the prestigious Seoul National University.
Chang noted that major posts in the government, including the National Planning Agency (Korea's CIA) and the chief secretary's office, are now all held by former prosecutors. Under Roh's recent reshuffling, the group, all of whom graduated from the same high school in Taegu, managed to put their people in several new key positions, according to Chang.
"Suddenly, the role of the National Assembly is being taken over," Chang said. "This is becoming the prosecutor's republic.
After failing to establish his own power base in Korea, Chang said, Roh appears to be consolidating his power by attacking the role of the assembly. "That is the tragic point for Korean politics," he said.
Since the Korean political system allows few channels through which politicians can legally raise money directly, most politicians turn to illegal sources to pay for their activities.
What worries Chang and others is that the prosecutors now can go after any lawmaker selectively. Two opposition lawmakers, for example, recently were arrested for taking junkets paid for by business, a practice that is reportedly widespread.
There are a few optimistic voices prevailing. Lee Kyung Tae, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Economics and Technology, a government think tank, suggested that South Korean democracy simply may be experiencing growing pains.