South Koreans Disgusted by Political Scandals

South Korea is often rocked by scandal. The latest brought down the prime minister. Two former presidents have been convicted on corruption. Scientist Hwang Woo-suk was a national hero until his stem cell research was found to be fraudulent. Louisa Lim reports on how South Korean citizens feel about the scandals.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Scandals are staining the careers of some of the most prominent figures in South Korea. That is a familiar story in a nation where two former Presidents were convicted on corruption charges.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports on the fall of some of South Korea's important men.

LOUISA LIM reporting:

Mr. HWANG WOO-SUK (scientist, South Korean cloning expert): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: This was one of modern Korea's most sobering moments. Once revered as a national hero, scientist Hwang Woo-suk apologizing for fabricating what had been considered world-leading stem cell research.

Mr. WOO-SUK: (Foreign spoken)

LIM: I ask your forgiveness. I'm so miserable I can't even apologize, he said at this tearful public appearance in January.

This was a major blow to national pride. The downfall of the man who'd once boasted at visiting the heart of America to plant a Korean flag on the hill of bioscience. Yet another South Korean hero to come tumbling down.

And there were more.

Unidentified Announcer: The fate of the Korean Prime Minister hangs in the balance amid rising criticism over the propriety of a recent golf game.

LIM: Television reports before the resignation of Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan. He was forced to step down three weeks ago, after playing golf instead of dealing with a chaotic transportation strike. His golf partners included a businessman facing punishment for price-fixing.

Mr. Hae is also accused of accepting a thousand dollar bet on the game, leading to allegations of influence peddling. He says he gave the money away.

(Soundbite of shouting)

LIM: The opposition meanwhile is engrossed in its own scandal. Angry protests brought down its secretary general, Choi Yeon Hee. He was accused of sexually harassing a female journalist. But Park Sun-soo(ph), Opinion Page editor for the JoongAng Daily, says none of this is very shocking.

Mr. PARK SUNG SOO (Opinion Page Editor, JoongAng Daily, South Korea): It's not, well, first time or it's not a rare occasion that South Koreans disappointed at loose or absurd behaviors of the politicians.

(Soundbite of someone speaking in a foreign language)

LIM: Indeed, this taxi driver is fed up with his country's role models. As he drives, Mr. Shin(ph), who only gives his last name, grumbles.

The government keeps telling us the economy is getting better, he says, but ordinary people like me aren't feeling it. When I ask him about the morals of the country's leaders, he explodes.

Mr. SHIN (Taxi Driver, South Korea): (Through translator) Look at common people's lives. We as taxi drivers need to follow every rule of the road. If we run a red light, we have to pay a fine. How can our prime minister hang around with convicted criminals?

LIM: His frustrations go to the heart of the credibility problems surrounding Korean role models. KIM SUNG GEO, the secretary general of the (unintelligible) governmental organization Transparency International Korea, says the public isn't satisfied with the people who represent them.

Mr. KIM SUNG GEO(Secretary General, Transparency International Korea): (Through translator) Surveys indicate more than 80 percent of Koreans neither respect nor trust their leaders. It's because they don't practice what they preach and they don't fulfill their duties properly. For example, a military service is compulsory for all South Korean men, yet somehow the sons of our leaders find ways to avoid it.

(Soundbite of crowd)

LIM: A lot of people chatting in Starbuck's in the arty Insadong area where the streets are lined with galleries and traditional one-story eating houses with (unintelligible). Here, many young people profess to know little about politics and care less--political apathy, perhaps born of frustration.

Others try to explain why some Korean leaders are so sleazy. One explanation is that the country's leaders are treated like a royal family so they believe they reign over the people instead of serving the people. Another is that political tension between left and right has led to instability meaning more corruption.

But there's also a good deal of defensiveness, with several people pointing out that scandals also happen elsewhere. Indeed, blinded by pride and nationalism, some South Koreans still believe their stem cell scientist Hwang Woo Suk did nothing wrong.

But some indicators like international surveys show signs of hope. Optimists claim that change is being driven from the bottom up, by people's desire for a cleaner government. Again, editorial writer Park Sung Soo.

Mr. SOO: Even though we have accomplished democratization, we still have to go a long way to be established as a advanced democratic country.

LIM: He points out that South Korean democracy is less than 20 years old.

Louisa Lim, NPR News.

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