What the Roh case can teach us

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Sun, May 31, 2009 - Page 8

The recent suicide of former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, who was under investigation for corruption, is bound to draw comparisons with the ongoing trial of former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). After all, the two former human rights lawyers have faced accusations of corruption — Chen of receiving or embezzling NT$490 million (US$15 million) and Roh of accepting US$6 million in bribes while in office.

In both cases, the investigations were launched after a transfer of power — from the Democratic Progressive Party to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in Taiwan, and from the left-of-center Uri Party to the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) in South Korea. (Incidentally, just as in Taiwan, the previous government was “green” and was replaced by the opposition “blue.”)

In democratic countries, high-level corruption represents a betrayal of trust that can have ramifications on a party’s performance at the polls. In other words, votes will serve as a corrective to corruption. In one-party systems like China, however, corruption is seen as an impediment to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose grip on power is contingent on its ability to maintain high economic growth and social stability. Anything that undermines that image or threatens to derail modernization — as high-level corruption does — is also perceived as a threat to the CCP, which in recent years has not refrained from ridding the party of highly visible corrupt officials. Under such a non-democratic system, however, direct popular elections cannot serve as an instrument to fight government corruption.

There are two areas in which both democracies and single-party states see eye-to-eye on corruption. One is in the use of corruption probes as a weapon for power plays within a political party, which is especially prevalent within the CCP but not unseen in multiparty democracies. The other — and this is of special interest here — is in the use of probes as a means to discredit the policies espoused by the targeted political figures in another party.

While they were in power, both Roh and Chen advocated policies that were extremely divisive.

In Chen’s case, his advocacy of an independent Taiwan alienated a sector of the polity that either sought to maintain the “status quo” with China or clearly supported eventual unification.

As for Roh, his most contentious — and equally divisive — policy was his decision to continue the “Sunshine Policy” of his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, toward North Korea, which culminated in a visit by Roh in Pyongyang in October 2007. In January that year, the main opposition GNP — a hardline on North Korea — criticized Roh’s government for trying to arrange the Inter-Korean Summit.

In both cases, the opposition had substantial influence on the media.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a report that the so-called “Big Three” conservative newspapers in South Korea — the Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo — together accounted for about 70 percent of the country’s newspaper market. These dailies, the CPJ said, had all been critical of Kim’s “Sunshine Policy.” Unsurprisingly, when major South Korean media outlets, including the three mentioned, faced tax evasion probes in 2001, the GNP turned out to be their “loud champion,” as the CPJ reported.

In December last year, the Korean Central News Agency reported that Media Action, a grouping of 48 civic and public organizations, including the south Korean Press Trade Union, denounced moves by the GNP — which came to power on Dec. 19, 2007, replacing Roh — to put media under its control. The group accused the party of seeking to revise media laws in ways that risked undermining impartiality and favored conservative media such as the Chosun Ilbo.

A clear link between the GNP’s control of the media, hardline stance on inter-Korean dialogue and the level of publicity surrounding the Roh case can be established. It is therefore not impossible that through the media and the judiciary, the GNP sought to discredit Roh’s policies vis-à-vis North Korea by focusing on allegations of corruption against him. Soon after his death, some South Koreans were already starting to ask if the media and the judiciary might not have come down “too hard” on Roh — something that would equally apply to the Chen case in Taiwan, where a large sector of the media falls under direct or indirect control of the KMT, and where the government has been accused of meddling in the judiciary.

It is interesting to note, too, that much like the KMT, the GNP has its roots in a military dictatorship, in this case that of Park Chung-hee in 1963, when it was known as the Democratic Republican Party. Such political dowry may have played a role — an old reflex, perhaps — in the KMT and the GNP’s use of mass propaganda campaigns to discredit not just a political opponent, but also an ideology (Taiwanese independence; liberal policies regarding North Korea).

The similarities in the Chen and Roh cases are more than superficial and may expose deep undercurrents in how young democracies with an authoritarian past address corruption. In both instances, the storm that has accompanied the probes against former officials point to a politicization of the process and the dangers inherent in government control of the media.

J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.