04-29-2009 18:18
Roh Scandal Hurts National Image

By Park Si-soo
Staff Reporter

To get an idea of how the investigation of former President Roh Moo-hyun over bribery allegations is interpreted by foreign residents here, The Korea Times asked 10 of them about their thoughts on the probe.

Their replies on the impact of the summons of the former President on the national image and the motive behind the investigation were mixed. Six said the summons would have little impact on the national brand, while the rest thought it would.

Most also reckoned the case was a step toward a cleaner society, and said it didn't look like political vengeance by the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration against the liberal former head of state. They said if the prosecution conducts its investigation fairly and secures evidence to prove him guilty, Roh should be held accountable under the law.

However, some thought the prosecution was conducting a ``whimsical'' investigation driven by public sentiment, intentionally leaking information to the media even before charging Roh with a crime.

Prof. Will Kern, who teaches intercultural communications at Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul, said if corruption charges are filed against Roh, they won't hurt the country's brand image. ``The Korea that is conjured up is not one of politics. It is of the great, contrasting, and contradicting history, the splendid palaces, gorgeous mountains, and friendly and open people. Political scandals are not part of that,'' he said.

Kyung Hee University law professor, Joseph Harte, said that most observers are familiar with the corruption allegations coming out of Seoul but what they were watching for is a legal system that shows itself capable of determining innocence or guilt in a fair and just manner. ``Another example of unpredictability in the Korean legal system, especially in such a high profile case, will be far worse for Korea's image than instances of corruption.''

George R. Hogan, an English teacher in southern Seoul, said, ``Branding goes far beyond political disclosures. Other nations aren't particularly interested in a simple bribery case.''

They agreed that Korea is becoming cleaner and more transparent.

``I'm sure this scandal hurts Korea's image abroad. But if the prosecution acts decisively and fairly concerning the former President, its image will be strengthened immeasurably,'' said Prof. Jon Huer at the University of Maryland University College. ``Korea cannot undo what has been done. Its only choice is to be swift and confident with the handling of this so that Korea shows that scandals are followed by its response to justice and fairness. Then its image will rise to a greater height.''

Punishment vs. Leniency

The majority answered that Roh should be punished somehow if found guilty at trial.

Sean Hayes, an attorney at Ahnse Law Offices in Seoul, said, ``The public and foreign population would welcome the fight against corrupt practices through the punishment of these practices. However most fear that the court system doesn't have the will or courage to give these perpetrators of white collar crimes anything more than a slap on the wrist.''

Prof. Kern noted, ``Where there is smoke, there is fire. If there is enough evidence to warrant charges, then he should be tried and held accountable, like everyone else.''

Michael Stevens, a senior at the Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary, in Guri, Gyeonggi Province, said, ``It is clear that Roh has not been totally honest and abused his position that the Korean people gave him. No one should be above the law _ not even the President.''

Some said the former President has been disgraced enough and should be spared from punishment.

``Nobody forced Roh to take the money. Ultimately only he is to blame for his mess. However, given his service to Korea, perhaps authorities should bee lenient with him. Isn't it enough that he is disgraced?'' said Phillip Hartman, a teacher and three-year resident here.

Some others expressed distrust in the prosecution.

Michael Breen, chairman of Insight Communications in Seoul, said, ``I don't have great faith in prosecutors and do not assume at this stage that Roh is guilty of anything.''

Political Vendetta?

Respondents are split over the question as to whether this investigation is politically motivated.

Stevens said, ``I don't think this is the current administration's vendetta against the former President and his family. If Roh, his family and his aides didn't do anything wrong then they would have nothing to fear. However clearly this isn't the case.''

Prof. Kern said, ``It probably is a little bit of both.''

Hogan said that Korean society lacks transparency and the investigation has a political motive. ``This is clearly a political vendetta and will be seen as just that by the already apathetic international community.''

Andy Jackson, a professor of government in the Lakeland College Bridge Program at Ansan College, said, ``It is hard not to make this seem like the new administration is out to get the old administration. That tends to turn the public off in just about any country.'' For example, a solid majority of Americans are against government investigations into alleged misdeeds of the Bush administration on torture, he said.

Prof. Jon Huer said, ``It is very obvious that this much zeal from the prosecution or the investigation itself would not have been possible if Roh were still in power. In all such matters, Korea's transparency is achieved in the long run as former presidents are freely investigated on corruption charges. For the short-run of things, suspicions of a political vendetta cannot be avoided, I think.''

Michael Breen said, ``The fact is the investigation of a former president is not good for Korea's image. At the same time, whimsical investigations driven by public sentiment, abusive questioning, the process of leaking information to the media and parading suspects in front of the camera even before they've been charged with anything are even worse for Korea's image.''

Breen said the historical pattern would suggest the investigation has something to do with a vendetta, but that does not make it the case. ``I suspect in this case that the information implicating Roh came out of the investigation of the businessman at the center of the scandal. That means Korea is becoming more transparent.''