Kim Dae-jung's tainted legacy

BBC, December 19, 2002

Outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae-jung will leave a mixed legacy.

He played a key role in the nation's history, but has two sons in prison for corruption

Mr Kim, who dedicated his life to human rights and democracy, came to the presidency in 1997 promising sweeping political changes.

I sometimes wonder whether he really understands what he is talking about
Kim Young-sam, former president
Home:               Corruption Index                Contact Us
"Political reform must precede everything else," he said. "The people must be treated as masters and must act like masters."

But the heady days were not to last. As his presidency limps to an end, the stench of corruption is around the Blue House, the seat of the Korean presidency.

Two of the president's sons are behind bars, guilty of graft.

Political enemies

It was a humiliation too far for their father.

Apologising to the Korean people, he said: "For the last few months I have lived with a very shameful and sorry feeling for not looking after my sons properly. I feel the responsibility very much.

"Throughout my life I have been through a lot of difficulty but I never thought I would have to go through something as catastrophic as this," he said.

Mr Kim's political career was turbulent from the start. Three days after his election to parliament, in 1961, the assembly was dissolved following a military coup.

Mr Kim stood firm in his political beliefs and even survived several attempts on his life.

But in today's world of democratic politics he has enemies of a different sort, such as the president before him, Kim Young-sam.

"Our culture is so-called a 'shame culture'"
Dr Sohn Bong-ho, Seoul national university
Home:               Corruption Index                Contact Us
"He is unreliable, untrustworthy and lastly, he is a liar," Mr Kim told East Asia Today.

"He has said that he would not play politics any longer, in 1991, 1992, after he lost the presidential campaign against me.

"And then he cried and he went to England for six months. But he came back and played politics again. He doesn't go by his words.

"I sometimes wonder whether he really understands what he is talking about. He would do this way and then he does the other way."

Kim's successes

But what do Kim Dae-jung's supporters say?

"As a politician he must lie and cheat sometimes but overall I don't think he was that kind of person," said Cho Soon-sung, a long-standing friend and political ally

He has sympathy for Mr Kim over the corruption of his sons, but said the president had to take responsibility.

"Of course that was his fault," said Mr Cho. "We have to accuse him for that kind of weakness, not managing his children properly."

Mr Cho said Mr Kim would be remembered in two ways - for the corruption scandals but also for his strong leadership in the earlier days, especially during the economic crisis of 1997.

"He always believed that he was the only one who could democratise Korea.

"One thing I am proud of his regime for is the democratic process and the civil rights movement."

A dynasty shamed, a father betrayed by his sons - the theme of filial devotion echoes though Korean arts.

"His two sons have violated a very basic principle of Confucianism - to be obedient to your father and honour your father" said Dr Sohn Bong-ho, professor of philosophy and ethics at Seoul national university.

"They brought great dishonour to their father."

Dr Sohn said corruption was deep-rooted in Korean culture, because people value personal relationships and will return favours to people who are good to them.

"Our culture is so-called a 'shame culture'. Koreans tend to cherish the personal relationship with others and the regards of others.

"That makes us a bit dishonest."

"Your security lies not in trust, in personal laws, but in good relationships with others who are strong or who are very kind to you.

"If somebody who you know very well who is very kind to you asks something of you, even if it is bad you can't refuse."

"Kim Dae-jung owed many things to many people. He has some kind of sense of obligation that he has to pay them back.

But Dr Sohn said he believed politics was changing.

"We have learnt many lessons. Recently the voice of civil groups has become very strong and plays an important role now. The government who is in power will be very careful.

"I think corruption will be much less in the future."

By Christopher Gunness


Home:               Corruption Index                Contact Us

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional