Brother of South Korean President Is Charged With Bribery

The New York Times, July 10, 2012

SEOUL, South Korea — The elder brother and mentor of President Lee Myung-bak was arrested on bribery charges early Wednesday, further weakening the political leverage of Mr. Lee, a lame-duck leader already grappling with setbacks in both domestic politics and foreign policy.

With the arrest of his brother, Mr. Lee is the latest in an uninterrupted series of South Korean presidents in recent decades to be disgraced by their own or relatives' corruption scandals.

The brother, Lee Sang-deuk, a 76-year-old former six-term lawmaker from the president's party, was charged with taking 600 million won, or about $525,000, in bribes from two bankers.

Prosecutors said the bankers had asked Mr. Lee to help stop government regulators from shutting their savings banks down for lax oversight and capital shortages. The bankers have been charged with embezzlement and bribery, and their banks' operations have been suspended.

Mr. Lee's detention came hours after he appeared before a judge deliberating whether to issue an arrest warrant. Angry protesters at the court yanked at Mr. Lee's tie and threw eggs at him but missed. Mr. Lee did not respond to reporters' questions, including whether he had used the bribes he is accused of taking to help finance his brother's election campaign in 2007.

Lee Sang-deuk played a crucial role in helping his younger brother, a well-known business executive but a novice in party politics, win the presidential nomination for what was then the opposition party.

Despite years of efforts to clean up South Korea's image, which has long been known as a place where bribes and political connections sometimes counted more than laws, the recent arrests of several of Mr. Lee's closest acquaintances on corruption charges suggest that graft remains entrenched.

Mr. Lee's immediate predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, committed suicide in 2009 amid a corruption investigation of his family.

"The brother's arrest is the most symbolic sign yet of President Lee having become a lame duck," said Kang Won-taek, a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

There was no immediate reaction from the president's office.

South Korea is scheduled to elect Mr. Lee's successor in December. By law, he cannot seek re-election, and presidential candidates from his party have been quick to distance themselves from him.

Mr. Lee exerted little power in selecting his governing party's candidates for the April parliamentary elections. Such power is the linchpin in a South Korean president's control over his party. Instead, the party's campaign was organized and led by Park Geun-hye, who lost the party's presidential nomination to Mr. Lee in 2007. Ms. Park announced her second bid for party candidacy on Tuesday.

Lee Sang-deuk's arrest came days after the administration suffered a diplomatic embarrassment, being forced late last month to put off the signing of a military cooperation pact with Japan.

Opposition and civic groups raised an uproar over the deal with Korea's former colonial master, but it was the ruling party's last-minute withdrawal of support that forced President Lee's government to postpone the signing, only an hour before the ceremony was to start.



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