Roh Tae Woo, who once won South Korea's presidency by promising to take the country from authoritarian rule to democracy, confessed in tears Friday that he amassed a slush fund of $653 million while in office and still has $222 million in bank accounts bearing false names.
"I will accept any kind of punishment wholeheartedly and present myself to the authorities for questioning, if necessary," Roh said on television, wiping away tears. "I cannot describe how ashamed and remorseful I am to stand here in front of you. What can I say after having betrayed your expectations?"
His revelation, which hinted of a venality in both the ruling and opposition camps that is bigger and broader that even cynics had imagined, triggered reverberations across the political spectrum. It also threatened to further split the ruling party--which already lost one of its factions in a walkout earlier this year--with National Assembly elections only six months away.
Roh, a former general, was president from 1988 to 1993.
Tipped off that Roh was about to go on television in Seoul, Kim Dae Jung, the nation's most famous advocate of democracy under past authoritarian leaders, told reporters Friday in Beijing, where he was visiting, that he had accepted a $2.6-million gift from Roh during the 1992 presidential campaign. Kim has run in, and lost, three presidential contests.
Kim also charged that President Kim Young Sam, who won the 1992 election, had received "hundreds of millions of dollars" from Roh.
Previously, Kim Dae Jung had adamantly denied all accusations that he had received money from slush funds held by Roh.
The opposition leader, who is scheduled to return to Seoul on Sunday, said he accepted the money because it was offered without conditions as a "consolation" for his "hard work" in campaigning. He said he spent all of the funds campaigning.
A day earlier, Kim Yoon Whan, chairman of the ruling Democratic Liberal Party, also said Roh "may have contributed" to Kim Young Sam's campaign funds.
Roh and Kim Young Sam, enemies in the 1987 election, later merged their two parties to form a majority in the National Assembly. Roh then picked Kim Young Sam as his successor.
President Kim, who is due back in Seoul today from a trip to Canada and the United Nations, did not comment on the charges that he had received campaign money from Roh's slush fund. He reportedly told journalists traveling with him in Honolulu that he hopes "this incident will turn into an occasion for the people to realize the morality of the civilian government."
The president, a lifelong politician, reminded the Korean reporters that one of his first acts after inauguration in 1993 was "to pledge not to receive a single penny of political donations--and I have kept this promise."
Roh, speaking from his home in Seoul, declared that raising what he called a presidential "governing fund"--although illegal--"was an old practice of our politics."
The former general said he used his secret fund to "operate" the ruling party, carry on "other political activities," reward "people who performed services to the nation" and "help the poor."
"Considering our political and election culture while I was in office, I must admit that I needed such a fund," Roh said.
Roh said he collected the money from the nation's leading businessmen, who, he pleaded, "should be spared punishment and public disgrace."
"They devote themselves day and night to overcoming fierce competition in the world," he said.
Roh did not name any contributors, but Chung Ju Yung, the multibillionaire founder of the Hyundai Group that makes everything from automobiles to ships to computer chips, revealed publicly in 1992 that he made periodic contributions to Roh ranging between $2.6 million and $13 million. Chung, who ran for president in the 1992 election, also said a presidential slush fund sustained by business leaders had been standard practice since the regime of former President Park Chung Hee, who served in the post from 1961 until his assassination in 1979.
Roh said he had not spent all of his own slush fund because less money than expected was needed for the 1992 campaign. "I should have spent all of the leftover money for the good of the nation, and I intended to," he said. "But now I have wound up losing the opportunity. . . . I deserve criticism for building up a governing fund, but my greater mistake was not putting the leftover money to good use."
Roh did not say what he planned to do with the remaining $222 million.
Prosecutor Ahn Kang Min said authorities will continue investigations "to uncover the total amount and determine how it was used."
He declined to say whether Roh might be arrested or called in for questioning.
In the past, prosecutors had only gone through the motions of investigating charges of presidential slush funds.
But on Oct. 19, an opposition member of the National Assembly submitted the specific number of one of Roh's secret bank accounts established in a fake name. President Kim responded by ordering a full investigation "with no sanctuary for any suspects."
One of Roh's former bodyguards subsequently went public with charges against the former president, and prosecutors started announcing one after another of the secret accounts they had traced to Roh.
The ruling party, which is made up mainly of supporters of Roh and Kim Young Sam, welcomed Roh's apology. Opposition forces, however, attacked it as an attempt to gloss over details of the slush fund. They demanded Roh's arrest.
The newspaper Dong-A Ilbo called the slush fund "astronomical . . . a national disgrace." The newspaper Chosun Ilbo demanded in an editorial that Roh explain in greater detail how he used the funds.
One taxi driver expressed disgust that not only Roh but also Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, both of whom had led calls for democracy for decades, apparently were guilty of indulging in "money politics."