S. Korean Lawmaker a Hero After Slush Fund Disclosure : Asia: Ex-dissident spurred former president’s confession. He says populace is ‘rising up against corruption.’
Park Kye Dong is a former dissident who spent much of his adult life in jail or running from police for demanding an end to authoritarian rule in South Korea. Now he has turned the tables.
Today, former President Roh Tae Woo, one of the generals-turned-politicians whom Park fought in the past, was summoned for questioning about a $653-million slush fund he amassed while in office. It was the first time a South Korean former chief executive has been subjected to such an indignity, and the 42-year-old Park--now a member of the National Assembly--played a key role in making it happen.
On Oct. 19, Park triggered the investigation that exposed Roh’s slush fund by producing a voucher showing the number of a secret bank account in which Roh held the equivalent of $13 million. It was the first concrete lead concerning rumors of the former president’s secret holdings, rumors that had spread since Roh stepped down in February, 1993.
Within days of Park’s disclosure, prosecutors were uncovering one secret account after another. By Friday, the pressure had induced Roh to go on television and confess, apologize and offer to accept punishment.
Now Park, a member of the small, opposition Democratic Party, has become a fountainhead of revelations. Almost daily he issues new charges, and he has taken on the aura of a hero to average Koreans who, he told The Times, are “rising up against corruption, just as they rose up against dictatorial rule in 1987.”
“All kinds of people are calling me. Even government officials are giving me information,” he said.
Leaders of rival opposition parties have charged that Park is being used as an agent of President Kim Young Sam, who purportedly wants to turn Roh’s slush fund into a weapon against his own political rivals of the last four decades and drive them out of politics.
Park said he “couldn’t completely rule out” the possibility that one of his informants, who identified himself over the telephone as a 17-year employee of the Korea Commercial Bank, might have been acting on behalf of the president. The caller informed Park that Roh kept some of his secret accounts in his bank, and Park said he never met the man.
“But I believe he was a patriot,” Park said.
Kim has denied any involvement in Roh’s illicit fund.
The key break came because of a reform that Kim implemented and an oversight that Roh’s aides committed.
In 1993, Kim enacted a law requiring all financial transactions to be carried out under real names. To ferret out the real owners of bank accounts, he began a system of taxing accounts annually instead of once at maturity.
Hah Jong Uk, a shipping agent who in pre-reform days had allowed his name to be used to conceal a $13-million account for Roh, suddenly found himself facing a bill for taxes on $900,000 in interest. Roh’s agents had neglected to contact Hah about the tax, leaving him to worry that they would not pay it.
In panic, Hah asked lawmaker Park to act as an intermediary with the Roh camp. Park replied that he would need to know the account number and the amount of the deposit, and Hah provided the data. Without contacting Roh’s associates, Park immediately went public with the information.
Two months earlier, prosecutors had ignored a charge by a minister in Kim’s Cabinet that Roh was hoarding a secret treasure chest. The minister had no evidence then, Park said.
“This time we had the account voucher, and the branch manager of the bank confirmed it was Roh’s money. The prosecutors couldn’t ignore that,” he said.
Hah went to Park for help partly because the two are alumni of the same high school, but Park’s reputation for integrity was also a factor. Earlier, Park figured prominently in exposures of illicit electioneering in behalf of ruling party candidates and in disclosures of bribery payments made by slot-machine operators.
Park said he and compatriots in the Democratic Party are continuing to investigate the 1988-93 Roh administration, particularly suspected kickbacks and illicit commissions. They have discovered, for example, that the Defense Ministry paid $62 million more than the manufacturer’s price for UH-60 helicopters and that it bought $313 million worth of F4-E Phantom fighter jets despite the fact that they were outdated.
He and these fellow party members also suspect that the ministry spent $730 million more than it should have to purchase modern F-16 aircraft, Park said.
Park added that he suspects Roh’s administration may have pocketed $650 million in payoffs for approving five new banks and $780 million in illicit rewards for handing out construction contracts--a third each from nuclear power plants, a new offshore international airport and a high-speed railway between the cities of Seoul and Pusan.
And whereas Roh’s predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan, was suspected of demanding bribes of $6.5 million for every new golf course built in South Korea, Roh reportedly charged only $1.3 million apiece, Park said. Chun approved only 38 golf courses in eight years in power; Roh authorized 139 in five years.
Park said his findings so far indicate that Roh still holds about $780 million in leftover illicit money, or more than three times the $242 million that Roh told prosecutors he still retains. He gave that figure in a report submitted to prosecutors Monday.
“I am in the process of documenting [the larger amount] with evidence,” Park said.
Park said he hopes the scandal will drive all of South Korea’s “three Kims"--the others are opposition figures Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Pil--out of politics, in which they have played leadership roles since the 1960s.
Chaos will reign, he predicted, until a crucial National Assembly election is held in April. If no party wins a majority, mergers will occur to create a majority in preparation for the 1997 presidential election, he said.
Park said he no longer worries about a revival of the governments by generals-turned- presidents that he fought for more than 20 years.
“The era in which the military played a political role has completely disappeared. We now have a mature civilian consciousness,” he said.
Chi Jung Nam of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.