Kim's 'bloodless coup' shakes Korea to core

Richard Lloyd Parry in Seoul traces the downfall of a generation of leaders

FOR THE past six weeks, an archetypal scene has dominated newspapers and television bulletins in South Korea. It begins with a black limousine which pulls up outside a state building in Seoul. Out of the car steps an elderly and powerful Korean - a former president or a general or a billionaire business tycoon. The man looks grave and he is flanked on either side by burly escorts, who shepherd him through a scrum of cameras and jeering demonstrators. Powerful doors open in front of him and the great one disappears inside - for questioning, criminal indictment or prison.

There has been an epic, almost Oedipal, quality to recent events in South Korea. Since the end of October - when the ex-president, Roh Tae-Woo, wept on live television as he admitted to amassing a secret fortune in illegal funds - a generation of leaders has suffered an escalating series of public humiliations.

Roh was the first to fall, imprisoned and indicted for receiving $355m of favours. Seven chairmen of the country's biggest corporations, including the huge Samsung and Daewoo conglomerates, have been charged with delivering the bribes in return for huge public works contracts. A week ago Roh's presidential predecessor, Chun Doo-Hwan, was locked up for questioning about his leadership of a 1979 coup and the massacre of civilians the following year.

Something extraordinary is going on in South Korea, and it has happened at the personal instigation of one man - President Kim Young-Sam. Polls show that he enjoys overwhelming public support. But nobody - politicians, voters, perhaps even the President himself - seems to know exactly what is happening. To supporters of Chun and Roh, it is a disgraceful act of political parricide by a man who owes his presidency to the jailed leaders. To the opposition parties it is simple electioneering, an opportunistic bid for popularity in advance of spring elections. According to Kim's supporters it is a decisive moment of transition, "part of the President's grand design to reform the political structure, a bloodless coup."

The shock of recent events has been all the greater for the extraordinary prosperity and calm which has come to the country in the last decade. Forty years ago, it was a ravaged and despairing place, broken in two by the three-year Korean war. Twenty years ago, it was a harshly authoritarian dictatorship run by a military president. Korea is still divided: the border with the communist North is one of the principal remaining flashpoints in the post-Cold War world. But against the odds, South Korea has developed one of the most vigorous and aggressive economies in East Asia.

Annual growth is running at more than 9 per cent. Such Korean companies as Daewoo, Hyundai and Samsung have become household names all over the world. And credit for this dizzy transformation belongs to precisely those men - the military presidents and their business leaders - who are presently suffering at the hands of Kim. With hindsight, this reversal has a kind of inevitability: South Korea's rebirth has been built on paradoxes and, more than most economic miracles, this one has had its demonic aspects.

For a start it was built on an alliance between business and government which could not help but foster corruption. Under Chun and Roh, free trade, competition, and small enterprise were stifled in the interests of the giant chaebol - huge corporations which functioned almost as branches of the government in return for cheap credit, licences and tariff protection. The chaebol did as they were told and richly expressed their personal gratitude to individual politicians.

The second paradox is that South Korea's journey to democracy was guided by a regime of ruthless authoritarians. Roh became the first democratically elected president in 1988, but his power was based upon the 1979 coup led by a group of generals under Chun. Their overthrow of the former regime was relatively peaceful. The blood was shed six months later, when demonstrations against martial law in the regional city of Kwangju were brutally put down by tanks and commandos.

The contradictions of this troubled history are epitomised in the figure of Kim Young-Sam. Two years ago, after a lifetime as a political dissident, he was elected as Korea's first civilian leader. Kim had suffered at the hands of the generals and had been through several spells in detention, but he came to power through a startling political compromise. Joining forces with his old adversaries, he became Roh's successor designate. This about-turn lost him much of his old radical support but gained him the trust of the business class, which was becoming embarrassed by the tinpot image of the former generals.

From the beginning, he established himself as a figure of moderate reform. Key supporters of the old regime were gently purged from the military; lesser businessmen and politicians, including members of his family, were impartially convicted under new anti-corruption laws. But the focus of the greatest emotion, the Kwangju massacre, was declared off-limits, with a phrase that became almost a slogan: "Let history be the judge."

Opinions differ on how and why he changed his mind. Disinterested analysts believe that the revelations about Roh's slush fund took Kim by surprise. Pressure to investigation Kwangju had been gathering all year: having been bounced into prosecuting one ex-president, it seemed only sensible to take credit for nailing a second. Undoubtedly, there are votes to be had in exorcising the ghosts of the past, but these are balanced by even greater risks. The purge could easily split Kim's party, which owes its majority to supporters of the shamed generals. On top of this is a persistent suspicion that the President himself, or at least those close to him, benefited from the dirty money gathered by Roh.

But Kim's biggest problem is in choosing where to draw the line. Like all the most effective dictators, Chun and Roh operated through thousands of local functionaries, middlemen and low-ranking officers - whose support is still essential to the credibility of Kim's government. Prosecutors talk about five or six symbolic convictions. Kim has emphasised that ordinary Koreans have nothing to fear. But the men now in prison were once told the same thing. They will not be alone in fearing the judgment of history.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Arts and Entertainment
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Life and Style
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: EWI / IWI Installer

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Management Accountant

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Manag...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'