More scandal in South Korea President Kim tarnished: Democracy is on trial as election looms.

May 27, 1997

IT NEVER HELPS a democratically elected leader when his son is carted off to jail and charged with taking bribes and evading taxes. It's worse when the scandal laps at the campaign financing that preceded the presidency. And it is truly sad when this president is his country's first to be democratically elected, a former courageous foe of dictatorship and a scourge of corruption.

Democracy is on trial in South Korea. As an institutional way of choosing governments it is bound to survive. The generation of politicians who achieved it may not.

President Kim Young Sam apologized to his people in February for the behavior of his son, Kim Hyun Chul. That was before Kim Hyun Chul was arrested and more allegations came out. The corruption investigations have spread beyond the collapse of Hanbo Steel in January after the company received imprudent loans through political pressure, which netted several arrests of persons close to President Kim.

Now the press and opposition are demanding information on Kim Hyun Chul's role in financing his father's election victory in 1992 and on the disposition of unspent funds. President Kim was the president who loosed prosecutors on his military predecessors, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, for corruption as well as brutalities. He is also a democratic politician up for re-election to a second term in December.

So far the only candidate nominated is his former ally and current nemesis, the more left-wing Kim Dae Jung, who was enthusiastically nominated by his own National Congress for New Politics for president. But Kim Dae Jung, at 74 and tarnished in previous scandals, is no longer what young voters and reformers seek. And yet Kim Young Sam's ruling New Korea Party is reeling in confusion.

Kim Young Sam gets high marks for dismantling dictatorship and instituting reforms, though he is now distracted. The prospect of further reforms, such as independence for the central bank, is in doubt. His ability to focus on the crisis of starvation and tyranny in North Korea is compromised. He can best solidify his achievement of democracy by limiting himself to one term and kicking off a fair competition for his party's nomination for the presidency.

Pub Date: 5/27/97

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