Leading Article: Cleaning out the Korean stables

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It could prove to be a historic, cleansing storm. In South Korea, events in recent weeks have had the manic quality of an improbably action- packed TV mini-series. Not one but two former presidents are simultaneously on the rack - and many of the country's top businessmen are implicated in the scandals, too.

Ex-president Roh Tae Woo confessed last month to having amassed $650m for a slush fund, of which almost a third, according to his own admission, went into his own pocket. He is now behind bars.

Ex-president Chun Doo Hwan, meanwhile, who seized power in a military coup 15 years ago this week, has found that his past has caught up with him, too. He has been arrested in connection with the massacre of students in the southern city of Kwangju in 1990, in which at least 200 people died.

The case of Mr Chun is almost straightforward. The brutal crackdown - Tiananmen, but without the same international outrage - had left a gaping wound which has never properly healed. The case of Mr Roh is more ambiguous. First, there was the embarrassing fact that President Kim himself was helped into power courtesy of Mr Roh. Second, the corruption allegedly involved some of South Korea's biggest and most successful companies, including Hyundai and Daewoo.

President Kim had repeatedly insisted: "Let history be the judge." Now he has suddenly performed a remarkable turnaround, pressing for a clean- out of the Korean stables - a turnaround which has left Koreans curious but not always enthusiastic. Mr Kim himself said yesterday that he was forced to move because the corruption had been "beyond imagination". Cynics contend that the explanation for this sudden conversion is to be found not in morality but in domestic politics: South Korea is due to have elections next spring.

Either way, the latest dramas contain an important message: new-found prosperity does not need to provide a carte blanche for everything that came before.

Twenty years ago South Korea was both poor and undemocratic. Now it is neither. Free elections were held in 1993, and the country is one of Asia's richest. It is significant that it is just at this point - when economic and political self-confidence have been achieved - that South Korea seems finally to be moving towards a reckoning with its own past. It is sometimes argued that the success of the Asian tiger economies is somehow incompatible with full democracy. But that need not be the whole story.

Caution is still needed. The whole Korean hullabaloo might vanish, almost as suddenly as it began. But the lessons from elsewhere in the world seem to be that expectations, once aroused, are difficult to dampen down. Even the bosses of the chaebols, South Korea's industrial giants, themselves now insist that they, too, want to do a cleaner kind of business, instead of paying a kind of informal corruption tax.

It is still unclear whether South Korea's apparent new determination to clean up its act is a serious change of tack or merely a pre-election blip which will leave corruption shaken but not stirred. None the less there are reasonable grounds for optimism that the country is hesitantly embarking on the next stage of its democratisation.