Empty apology

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2003, 12:00am

President Kim Dae-jung's address to the South Korean people in which he apologised for the North Korean payoff scandal marks the first time he has acknowledged responsibility - but instead of clarifying the issues, he has muddied them, urging that none of the people involved be investigated or prosecuted.

While saying, 'I believe the government has to clarify the truth', Mr Kim did not specify the amount of money sent to North Korea, or say whether it was government money or the Hyundai Group's money, nor did he say what connection, if any, there was between the money and the summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in June 2000, which won him a Nobel Peace Prize.

To be fair, Kim Dae-jung at least acknowledged his administration had violated the law - and had assisted the Hyundai Group to violate the law - but he issued an appeal in the name of a higher national interest, which he feels should provide immunity for all concerned.

I have some questions for Kim Dae-jung. Mr Kim, if the precondition to accepting responsibility is that no legal action be taken against you and your top officials, does it not make the acknowledgment of responsibility meaningless? Moreover, are you not shifting responsibility from the government to Hyundai, presenting the situation as one in which your administration merely 'accommodated' Hyundai in its business dealings with North Korea? At no point did you admit that the government provided the money to Hyundai, via the state-owned Korea Development Bank. Nor did you say that the government was merely extending a loan to Hyundai, which it expects to be repaid. In fact, the chief executive of Hyundai Merchant Marine at the time, Kim Choong-shik, has already insisted that the company has no obligation to repay the government. What does this mean, except that Hyundai was merely providing a channel for your government to send funds to Kim Jong-il? Your cover-up - there is no other word for it - bears a remarkable resemblance to the Watergate affair in the US during the presidency of Richard Nixon. President Nixon, at the time, invoked 'executive privilege'; you invoke 'administrative authority', which amounts to pretty much the same.

Mr Nixon's close associates were convicted of perjury. Your chief-of-staff, Park Jie-won, has already admitted lying to a parliamentary panel last October when he denied holding secret meetings with a North Korean official.

Mr Nixon tried to involve the CIA in his cover-up. Your security adviser, Lim Dong-won, has already admitted that, when he was head of the National Intelligence Service, he helped channel funds to North Korea.

Mr Nixon wrapped himself in patriotism as a defence against all critics. You, in your statement, appealed for South Koreans' 'patriotic judgment and understanding' on the payoff scandal, saying 'the destiny of the nation awaits the wise, determined decision of all Koreans'.

This incident is already beginning to affect the image not only of Hyundai but also of South Korean corporations generally. Indeed, it is having an adverse effect on the image of the country. Your 'apology' did not help.

It is vital that the whole truth comes out. As you said in your statement, South Korea's prosecutors and the Board of Audit and Inspection have both decided not to pursue the investigation, which is exactly what you want. A spokesman at the Supreme Prosecutor's Office cited the 'continued progress' of inter-Korean relations and South Korea's national interests for its decision.

But these are political factors that should not figure in a decision on whether to proceed with a criminal investigation. By allowing politics to interfere, the prosecutors and the board have lost credibility.

Kim Dae-jung, it is clear that you would like the matter to be dropped after you step down next week. But this must not happen. It is clear that the opposition Grand National Party, which has a majority in the legislature, will insist on an independent investigation. This is something that president-elect Roh Moo-hyun should support once he assumes office.

It is a great tragedy Mr Kim, that you, a stalwart fighter for democracy all your life, should achieve the presidency after tremendous struggles, only to leave office under a cloud. You can still clear it up in the time left.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and author





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