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.