Can the Nobel Peace Prize be bought? And if so, for how much? One answer, if you ask South Korea's opposition Grand National Party, is US$200 million (HK$1.5 billion). That is approximately the amount funnelled to North Korea via a private company, Hyundai Merchant Marine, in June 2000, just before President Kim Dae-jung flew to Pyongyang for a summit meeting with Kim Jong-il. And, before the end of the year, the South Korean leader was invited to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize medal.
The issue of whether Mr Kim authorised the money to be sent to North Korea to secure a summit meeting with the North Korean leader is tarnishing the image of the outgoing president - and may imperil the presidency of president-elect Roh Moo-hyun.
The governmental Board of Audit and Inspection confirmed last Thursday that the state-owned Korea Development Bank had transferred a vast sum of money under suspicious circumstances to Hyundai Merchant Marine, which funnelled the money to North Korea. Reports to this effect first surfaced last October.
Mr Kim's government, which had previously denied that any money had been sent to Pyongyang, is now urging that no one should be prosecuted in connection with this case.
'I think that it is inappropriate to consider money transfer as the object of legal punishment,' the president told the board's head Lee Jong-nam, 'given that the money was used for inter-Korean economic projects and sustained development of inter-Korean relationship'.
But, Mr President, that was taxpayers' money, not Hyundai's money. As the head of a democratic government, don't you have to tell the electorate how you are spending their money? Moreover, if there is to be any prosecution, it would not be limited to Hyundai personnel, but members of your administration as well. Your presidential secretary, Park Jie-won, had told the National Assembly that not a single dollar was sent to the North. The National Intelligence Service denied any involvement. The former head of the Korea Development Bank had characterised reports of money being sent to North Korea as 'probably not true'. Under government pressure, South Korean prosecutors announced on Monday that they would not pursue an investigation into whether the Kim administration had secretly paid North Korea to secure the summit meeting. 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 surely those are political factors that should not figure in a decision on whether to proceed with a criminal investigation. Suspicions of a Watergate-style cover-up are mounting.
The key figure in the coming weeks will be Mr Roh, who in December had called for investigations into numerous allegations involving the outgoing administration. Now, however, Mr Roh is singing a different tune, saying that any investigation should take national interests into account.
Mr Kim, of course, does not want to see his administration unravelling in its last three weeks in office. But Mr Roh's interests are quite different. If he wants to continue the 'sunshine policy', he must not only let justice be done, but ensure that justice is seen to be done. Appeals for a 'political solution' are not going to work, because the Grand National Party, which controls the National Assembly, will never go along.
Mr Roh has a chance to bring the country together, but not if he is seen to handle this sensitive issue in a partisan fashion. His youthful supporters will be disenchanted if he cynically decides to protect his mentor, Mr Kim, and seek a 'political solution'.
North Korea, too, does not want any investigation. It has attacked 'the sinister moves of a handful of forces going against co-operation, exchange and reunification' and has warned that it might become 'impossible to ensure peace and security on the Korean peninsula'. The only way out is to appoint an independent prosecutor with the authority to question all parties concerned, up to and including the president.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator