Lavish poverty

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 July, 2003, 12:00am

South Korea's former president, Chun Doo-hwan, claims his entire fortune is worth less than US$300. Yet he often plays golf at prime country clubs together with family members and associates and travels overseas with a big entourage. His wife recently planted an expensive tree at a golf course to celebrate her hole-in-one. His lavish lifestyle is quite a mystery if one believes his estimation of his personal wealth.

But the truth seems to be that Mr Chun is not honest about his wealth. To avoid paying nearly US$170 million in fines he owes to the government, Mr Chun argues he is almost broke. The former army general, who seized power in a military coup in 1979, was convicted of bribery, subversion and mutiny. He was originally given a life sentence but released a few years later in an amnesty. He was originally fined nearly US$200 million but paid only about 15 per cent of it.

Mr Chun has said all along he did not have enough money to pay for such a sum. He, nevertheless, has lived a comfortable life all these years with no evident shortage of money. His children and their families also have plenty of real estate and other assets, according to news reports. Many South Koreans are upset that their former president disregards government rules and orders and turns a deaf ear to angry public opinion.

In fact, South Korea's former presidents in general receive little respect. Most of them met tragic ends. They have been jailed, assassinated, exiled and disgraced. Even former president Kim Dae-jung, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts at inter-Korean reconciliation, is now on the defensive for allegedly purchasing the historic South-North summit in that year.

Such endings for former presidents sadden many South Koreans. They look enviously at other countries where former leaders are revered and loved. South Korea's short history of democracy - which spans only about two decades - is perhaps responsible for that. But enough is enough. It is time for former presidents to act responsibly and sensibly, so they regain people's respect. Mr Chun should either stop living lavishly or pay the fines.