Looking for the Ppaldae
By Cho Jae-hyon
A box full of colorful ``ppaldae'' (straws used to suck a drink) was recently delivered to the Supreme Prosecutors Office. In it was a letter with a one-liner saying: ``I hope you will find the ppaldae soon.''
Ppaldae, used as jargon among journalists, refers to internal sources from whom reporters ``suck'' newsworthy information.
The straw gift was from a woman living in North Gyeongsang Province, according to Hong Man-pyo, one of the prosecutors investigating the bribery scandal surrounding former President Roh Moo-hyun.
Her idea of sending the straws to the prosecution office originated from Hong's press briefing on April 23. There he openly pledged to look for and strike out ``a bad straw'' who leaked some raw, sensitive information about the former head of state to the press.
His remarks were supposed to send a warning message to the undercover ppaldae inside the prosecution and express discontent with the press that prints and airs every allegation funneled by the ppaldae.
The leak reached a near peak on April 22 when it was reported that Park Yeon-cha, former CEO of shoemaker Taekwang, gave a set of Piaget watches worth about 200 million won ($180,000) to the Roh couple on Roh's 60th birthday in 2006.
Coinciding with the prosecution's launch of its direct investigation of the former President with written questions, the unwanted report seemingly placed the prosecution in a bit of an awkward position as it could be viewed as a foul play intended to tarnish Roh's image.
After all, prosecutors are supposed to investigate this kind of high-profile case in a secretive manner amid tight security. But the opposite is true in reality, with every bit of information being handed to the press that in turn spits it out as fed.
Moon Jae-in, now the mouthpiece for Roh as his lawyer, vented his frustration with the unending stream of leaks. ``If the prosecution leaked the information to embarrass former President Roh, it's really a bad act.''
Prosecutor Hong, acting as the official spokesman for the prosecution, also said it's quite understandable that Roh might feel unfairly treated.
For reporters striving for a scoop, ppaldae are indispensable. In Roh's case, the press ― fully backed by the ppaldae inside the prosecution ― has been more than able to satisfy the people's right to know for several months. They don't mind whether the accusations are true or not.
In the eyes of the people, Roh and all of his family members are now nothing but a bunch of corrupt former first family members. They are already as guilty as accused by the prosecution, even before they are indicted. This underscores that South Korea's prosecution is all mighty. The public, accustomed to the practices for so long, finds no problem with the way the prosecution briefs on the bribery scandal on a daily basis and the way the press reports it.
In contrast, they are ignoring people's right to know in actress Jang Ja-yeon's suicide case. More than 70 days have passed after Jang took her own life, leaving a note containing the list of big shots who she said forced her into providing sexual services to them.
Police, unwilling to investigate further, have already buried the so-called Jang Ja-yeon list. Many questions remain unanswered, and heavyweight media and corporate figures in the list are exempted from summons or questions, let alone being held accountable.
Jang's name no longer makes headlines and the case is being forgotten fast. The press also turned nonchalant, also paying not much attention to the people's right to know.
During the investigation of a case, whether by the prosecution or police, the rights of the accused should be protected on a par with those of plaintiffs. But in Jang's case, the rights of the suspects have been overprotected. Police are busy putting a lid on the case to keep worms inside.
Law enforcement officers turn meek toward influential media and business executives. The judiciary again took the side of those with power, reaffirming that they would emerge unscathed next time too.
Absent in the police organization are the ``good straws'' who feed reporters with information about what and who had driven the actress to end her life at such a young age.
Prosecutor Hong has yet to deliver on his pledge to find the ``bad straw'' and plug the hole. But it's questionable whether he had the will to do so in the first place. Neither did the woman who sent the box of straws anticipate that.