A Grand Korean Inquisition

The inquisition may not have got to the bottom of anything, but as political theater it was hard to beat Thursday’s spectacle of South Korea’s leading conservative political party roasting its two leading presidential candidates on live television over charges of corruption, illicit love and tax evasion.

For six hours – three for each candidate – first, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former dictator Park Chung Hee, and then Lee Myung-bak, a former Hyundai Construction Co. CEO and one-time Seoul mayor, sat under the studio lights as a panel of interrogators led by a former star prosecuting attorney raked through the best-known mud on the two, airing tales of illicit sex, inside land deals and tax evasion.

The extraordinary public ordeal – the first of its kind here, or perhaps anywhere ‑ was intended, the Grand National Party said, to vet the candidates ahead of next month’s primary election. In scandal-plagued Korea, the party’s reasoning goes, it is better to expose the dirt on your own terms rather than leave the field open solely to your opponents.

Imagine the Democratic Party in the US putting Bill Clinton on the stand, live on every television network, and then probing him on Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky, or George W. Bush being asked by his own allies to explain the lying and incompetence behind the Iraq War.

The front-runner, Lee, was asked how he evaded mandatory military service and whether he used his post as Seoul mayor to reward his friends with lucrative deals. Pressed on various shady real estate transactions, he served up a platter of pale denials. Allegations about his real estate holdings have been fodder in the press for months as both Park’s campaign and liberal politicians have brought up charge after charge. When the panel turned on him, he said, "As CEO of Korea`s largest construction company, why would I have felt the need to make money through secret real estate deals? I never even had the free time."

Lee was asked to explain why he sold a choice plot of land to a brother-in-law several years ago at a bargain basement price well below market value. Simple, he said, “I asked him to sell it for me. I think he changed it to his name because he couldn’t sell it. So he bought it instead.”

The panel then asked why it was sold for 25 million won when the price had been 90 million. “He is a brother-in-law,” Lee offered. “I thought it was O.K. to give him a good deal.”

But it was Park whose time in the hot seat was truly extraordinary. When her mother was assassinated by a North Korean gunman in 1974, the young woman, then just 22, became the country’s de facto first lady, serving in that capacity until her father in turn was killed by his own intelligence chief in 1979. It was that six-year period the questioners zeroed in on, bringing up Park’s ties to a man named Choi Tae-min.

Choi, a former Buddhist monk turned protestant religious leader, had a two-decade long association with Park, who has never married, beginning in 1974. Many years her senior, he died in 1994 leaving behind a string of corruption allegations, ties to a charitable foundation begun by Park’s mother, a history of having had six wives and rumors that he knew Park in the Biblical sense.

Asked about her relations with Choi, Park said Choi was a “thankful person” who consoled her after her mother’s murder. “Did you know that Choi had seven different names and had married six times?” she was asked. “Did you know that he was a monk, who then converted to being a pastor?”

“No,” she answered, becoming visibly irritated.

“You seem to be overly sensitive when Choi is mentioned,” a questioner probed.

“People tell me Choi is a bad person and attack me for being bad because I must have some kind of link with him,” Park told the questioners, finally bringing up one of the great rumors of Korean politics: “How dare they say that I bore his child? Let those who spread such horrible stories meet their nemesis. If they find such a child, bring it to me. I am willing to go through a DNA test for them.”

Facing the twin challenges of being a woman and a dictator’s daughter, the steely Park, 55, may just gain a measure of sympathy for airing and challenging the rumor about a child born out of wedlock in a country where women are traditionally subservient to men. But she has also polished an image of being incorruptible, and the panel went after her equally on those grounds.

She was asked about links to charitable foundations that date back to the days of her father’s iron-fisted rule. She denied accusations of embezzlement, tax evasion and mismanagement during her terms as chairman of the boards of directors of the Yookyoung Foundation, Youngnam University and the Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation. But she did confirm a rumor that she received 600 million won from former President Chun Doo-hwan immediately after the military coup that Chun staged in 1979 and that a wealthy businessman had given her a house some years ago on which she failed to pay gift taxes.

From the perspective of coming elections, it would be difficult to choose a winner between Lee and Park in Thursday’s show. They both came off as deeply flawed, and the dirt will not stop here. A number of the charges, including Lee’s real estate woes and Park’s foundation links, are the subject of ongoing probes by powerful government prosecutors, who have derailed previous election campaigns with well-timed charges.

Still, the conventional wisdom has been that President Roh Moo-hyun’s generally unpopular and erratic liberal government has paved the way for a conservative triumph at the polls in December. Presidents serve just one term, so Roh cannot run again. Further, the liberal forces are in disarray, splintered into a field of 17 possible candidates from several parties with no clear front-runner.

Written off as hopelessly inept, Roh, however, is riding a pair of wins lately. The recently concluded free trade deal with the United States, which has yet to be ratified, is popular here and nuclear talks with North Korea are making progress. The president’s approval ratings have rebounded to the 30 percent range and a number of observers say that with the Grand Nationals having to choose between two troubled candidates, the liberals could rally before December and hold on to the Blue House. Roh, long a maverick, himself came from the back of the pack to win in 2002.

The unanswered question, of course, is why the Grand National Party itself seems so intent on hurting its own leaders.