Korean leader faces pounds 178m bribes charge

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The political scandal engulfing South Korea escalated yesterday when the former president Chun Doo Hwan, who already faces trial for treason, was charged with accepting millions of dollars in bribes from Korea's biggest corporations, including Daewoo, Samsung and Hyundai.

Mr Chun, who is in hospital following a 26-day prison hunger strike, was charged with illegally accepting 216bn won(pounds 178m) during his eight years in office. Five of his aides, including a former finance minister, a government tax administrator and a retired intelligence chief, were accused of handling the bribes, described by the public prosecutor as "corruption among the powerful which is unprecedented in our constitutional history".

The scale of the alleged misconduct is staggering, rivalling even that of Roh Tae Woo, Mr Chun's successor as president. Mr Roh appeared in court last month charged with receiving pounds 230m. But these sums represent only a small proportion of the secret political slush funds maintained by the two men. In Mr Roh's case, this is believed to be pounds 415m. According to state prosecutors, Mr Chun has admitted amassing almost pounds 570m from 42 companies, equivalent to 1.5 per cent of South Korea's Gross National Product for 1980, when he came to power as leader of a military coup.

Individual bribes ranged from pounds 160,000 to pounds 17.5m, presented routinely in exchange for government contracts for nuclear power plants, dams, highways, defence procurement, public buildings and rural development programmes.

Among the items uncovered during the investigation is pounds 2.4m allegedly received from Korean Air Lines in return for dropping penalties connected with the Flight 007 tragedy in 1983, when a Korean jet was shot down by the Soviet air force. The money is believed to have been spent on financing the presidential election campaign of Mr Roh in 1987 and parliamentary elections in 1988 and 1992. Even after leaving office in 1988, Mr Chun held on to pounds 130m dispersed in property, bonds and hundreds of bank accounts held under false names.

Yesterday's charges represent the latest stage in an extraordinary historical purge that has electrified South Korea. After a disastrous year, during which his personal support plummeted, President Kim Young Sam gave in to popular pressure to investigate his predecessors, former generals who introduced democracy after more than three decades of authoritarianism.

Mr Chun's slush fund was first exposed soon after he left office. But after a grovelling public apology, and two years of self-imposed seclusion in amonastery, he appeared to have weathered the scandal. When Mr Roh attempted the same ploy, however, public outrage forced President Kim to reopen the investigation. First, Mr Roh was arrested for corruption and, in December, Mr Chun was held on treason charges related to the 1979 coup.

Further indictments are expected to follow, concerning the massacre of student demonstrators in the city of Kwangju the following year. Prosecutors announced this week that they intend to excavate several sites where the bodies of those killed by the army are believed to have been dumped. The corruption charges carry a sentence of up to life imprisonment; treason is a capital charge, although the death sentence is unlikely to be carried out.

The timetable of Mr Chun's trial is unclear; he is recovering from his hunger strike, and the picture may be complicated by allegations concerning ties between the slush funds and President Kim. As the approved successor of the two generals, Mr Kim is believed to have received portions of the dirty money to fund his own election.

In his New Year address, the President made vague reference to his past "wrong practices". But he insisted that he had "never received a single won that came with strings attached or that was attached to any business interest".