Prisoner 1437 is a former president

Divided Korea: In Seoul, an ex-leader is accused of taking $32m bribes, while in the North, floods bring starvation

Associated Press

Seoul - Dressed in the white uniform of a common prisoner, the disgraced former President Roh Tae Woo went on trial yesterday and repeated his claim that he only received donations from businessmen, not bribes.

The 63-year-old former general looked tense as he softly answered 200 questions from prosecutors over nearly six hours. Wearing rubber shoes and padded winter clothing with prison number 1437 on his chest, Mr Roh sat still on a wooden bench and gazed straight at the three-judge panel seated on a raised podium.

Asked if he received money from 35 business groups, he said: "Yes, but I can't remember exactly where, when and from whom. When I privately met them, I thought this was the practice."

Under pressure from the prosecution, however, Mr Roh admitted that he had received $32m (pounds 21m) from the nation's largest conglomerate, Samsung. He said he destroyed all accounting records after the scandal became public in October - a crime under Korean law.

The presiding judge. Kim Young Il, repeatedly ordered Mr Roh to speak up, but he did not comply. Even reporters seated several benches away could not hear clearly.

The next hearing is set for 15 January. Also standing trial are 14 aides and businessmen, charged with helping him set up the slush fund. The only other defendant under arrest for the trial was Mr Roh's former chief bodyguard, Lee Hyun Woo. The rest were indicted without being arrested.

The industrialists represent a Who's Who of South Korean business circles, including Samsung's chairman Lee Kun Hee and Kim Woo Joong, head of the conglomerate Daewoo.

The businessmen denied they bribed Mr Roh, saying the money they gave him was meant to hedge against possible disadvantage in doing business with the government.

Hundreds of people queued overnight for the 80 seats available for the public. Many were touts, and the going rate for their tickets was $300.

Television networks gave live reports of Mr Roh's 25-minute trip from jail to the court.

About 500 people surrounded the huge television screen at Seoul Express Bus Terminal.

Security was extremely tight, with 1,000 police standing guard inside and outside the courthouse.

Mr Roh, president from 1988 to 1993, faces charges of funnelling commissions and bribes into a $650m slush fund he amassed during his term. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 10 years to life in prison.

Before he was arrested on 15 November, Mr Roh claimed that collecting money from businesses was a long-standing practice of past governments and denied he took bribes.

Mr Roh's immediate predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan, is also in jail for masterminding a coup in1979. The prosecution has until Friday to indict him for military rebellion, which carries the death penalty, although that would be unlikely to be imposed. He has been on a hunger strike since his arrest on 3 December.

The trial comes as President Kim Young Sam is struggling to minimise the impact of scandals involving his two predecessors. He sacked his prime minister last Friday and appointed Lee Soo Sung, an academic with no ties to past governments.

The National Assembly yesterday gave its approval, setting the stage for an extensive government reorganisation.