Former South Korean President Roh Tae Woo, the onetime general who once electrified his nation by calling democratic elections after decades of dictatorship, was arrested and jailed Thursday for allegedly taking bribes worth more than $300 million from 30 business tycoons.
A five-page arrest warrant detailed Roh's stunning fall from grace, describing an intricate web of avarice and collusion involving some of the nation's best-known business conglomerates. Daewoo Corp. Chairman Kim Woo Choong was accused of paying Roh a total of $31 million on seven occasions from 1988 to 1991--including a $6.5-million bribe to win a contract to build a submarine base near the southeastern port of Pusan.
The 29 other conglomerate chiefs, unnamed except for Choi Won Suk of Dong Ah Construction Industrial Co. Ltd., were accused of giving bribes ranging upward from $625,500. Some of them are expected to be arrested as well.
Prosecutors expanded their investigation today, arresting Roh's former bodyguard, Lee Hyun Woo, a retired army general. Lee was charged with helping Roh collect bribes and taking at least $3.5 million on his own, the Associated Press reported.
The arrest of a former chief executive--a historic event that would have been unimaginable during the dark days of authoritarian rule--was hailed by some as proof of South Korea's astounding progress since its first democratic elections in 1987 after three decades of military dictatorship. Others, however, bemoaned the nation's image now "in tatters."
The arrest also raised fears of economic instability as rumors abounded that some of the business leaders were the next targets for contributing to Roh's staggering presidential slush fund of $653 million. Since Roh first disclosed his slush fund with a tearful televised apology Oct. 27, the Korea Stock Exchange has fallen by 6.7%, and officials are bracing for a possible period of confusion among South Korea's mighty conglomerates, the country's greatest engines of economic growth.
Steve Marvin, an analyst with SSANG Yong Securities, predicted that the arrest will temporarily paralyze major decision-making at large companies and freeze lending to small, risky companies.
Roh, however, defused the greatest potential bombshell by refusing to disclose to prosecutors during 20 hours of questioning that began Wednesday whether he gave any slush funds to current President Kim Young Sam or other politicians, citing a memory lapse. Had he confirmed rumors that he gave millions to Kim--which the president denies--Roh could have toppled the presidency and left the nation in chaos.
He has steadfastly repeated that he would not take any actions that would prove "calamitous" to the nation.
"I'm really sorry," a grim but calm Roh told a jostling crowd of onlookers and 300 reporters after his arrest at the Seoul prosecutor's office, where he had been held overnight. "I am prepared to take all the responsibility and punishment for what I've done."
Roh also apologized to the nation's business executives, urged the public to support them and appealed to politicians to "clear the mistrust and conflict in your hearts" and unite for the nation's sake.
A jeering crowd pelted his black limousine with eggs and yelled "Thief!" as Roh was whisked away to an unheated solitary cell in the Seoul Detention Center, where he will be clothed in white prison fatigues, allowed to exercise one hour a day and reportedly fed such meager fare as pickled vegetables, barley and rice.
In deference to his stature, he was not handcuffed. He will be given a cell four times larger than the average, allowed to exercise separately to avoid attacks by angry fellow inmates and be assigned around-the-clock guards, prison officials told the Korean media.
Prosecutors said they sought a quick arrest to prevent destruction of evidence and will continue their investigation into still-unclear areas. Those areas include how Roh used the money--in addition to funneling it to political accounts, he is suspected of buying real estate for his relatives--and whether he stashed some of his loot in overseas accounts.
Investigators are also trying to solve a $195-million discrepancy between the payments reported by 36 business tycoons questioned over the last several days and the amount reported by Roh.
Roh, who must be indicted within 20 days, faces a minimum 10-year prison sentence.
In downtown Seoul, where the news broke just as office workers were scurrying home in the chill night air, Roh's arrest was greeted with glee, satisfaction and some sadness.
"It's a tremendous advancement in terms of the political environment and people's thinking," said Lee Min Kwan, an accountant with Dong Ah. "Ten years ago, people could not even imagine this kind of thing. Politically, we couldn't attack anything."
But Ahn Hyo Soon, an insurance saleswoman, called Roh's arrest "a pity and a shame." While urging severe punishment to deter others from similar crimes, she said she sympathized with Roh, whom she called a weak-willed man raised as a poor country boy probably torn between the desire to confess and the wish to hide his misdeeds.
"I despise and blame his wife," she said. "A man can be controlled by his wife. If I were her, I would have stopped him from getting too greedy."
Some analysts said that Roh's arrest would not solve the underlying problem of massive structural corruption in South Korea's ruling elite. The system of money for favors is said to have been institutionalized by the late President Park Chung Hee after taking power in 1961 and expanded to unparalleled heights by Roh.