Roh Goes on Trial, Denies Taking Bribes
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ His handcuffed wrists hidden by an ill-fitting prison shirt, Roh Tae-woo _ designated Prisoner 1437 _ entered a Seoul courtroom Monday without a hint of the power he once wielded as president.
Head bowed and speaking in whispers, Roh answered more than 200 questions from prosecutors about the $650 million slush fund he has admitted to amassing.
At times, the former president’s responses were so soft that reporters a few benches away couldn’t hear. The three-judge panel repeatedly told him to speak up.
Still, the answers resounded throughout the nation. As far as South Korea was concerned, there was no story other than the start of the first trial of a former president accused of wrongdoing in office.
Roh faces 10 years to life in prison if convicted of funneling kickbacks and bribes into the slush fund during his 1988 to 1993 presidency.
During Monday’s hearing, Roh repeated his claim that he did not receive bribes, only ``donations″ from businessmen _ a longstanding practice of past governments.
``I thought this was the practice, to receive money at private interviews,″ Roh said, adding that business leaders often sought the encounters.
The trial mesmerized South Koreans. Roh’s 25-minute trip from jail to the courthouse was shown on live TV, followed by the first 40 seconds of the trial before cameras were ordered out of the courtroom. South Koreans then waited hungrily for scraps of news about the six hours of testimony.
What they heard was bitter confirmation that the road to business success in South Korea was paved with government bribes, and that failure to pay them could lead to business disaster.
Lee Kun-hee, the head of Samsung, South Korea’s biggest conglomerate, testified Monday that his company ``saw much harm during the past governments. So during Roh’s rule, the money was given, in a sense, with the hope that it would be able to avoid injury.″
Roh’s predecessor, Chun Doo-hwan, drove the Kukje Group, then one of South Korea’s top 10 conglomerates, to bankruptcy in 1985 by cutting off all credit. Many believe the breakup was due to Kukje’s refusal to pay bribes.
During Roh’s rule, multibillion-dollar government projects were launched to buy arms and build an international airport, nuclear power plants, and a high-speed railroad.
Dressed in a loose-fitting white prison shirt, Roh sat nearly immobile on a wooden bench Monday, looking straight at the judges 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.″
Roh said he destroyed all accounting records after the scandal began to unfold in October. He was arrested Nov. 15.
Also standing trial are 14 aides and businessmen charged with helping him set up the slush fund. The only other defendant in custody is Roh’s former chief bodyguard, Lee Hyun-woo. The rest were indicted without being arrested.
Security was tight Monday, with 1,000 police on guard inside and outside the courthouse. Metal detectors were installed outside the courtroom, and all other trials were postponed.
Hundreds of people stood in freezing weather for a chance to see the disgraced president, and many who won one of the 80 seats reserved for the public promptly sold them for the going rate of $300 apiece. Protesters pelted Roh’s van with eggs and a bag of flour as it carried him to the courthouse.
The next hearing is set for Jan. 15.
Chun, Roh’s predecessor, is also in jail for masterminding a 1979 coup. The prosecution has until Friday to indict him for military rebellion, which carries the death penalty, although it is unlikely to be imposed. He has been on a hunger strike since his Dec. 3 arrest.
The trial comes as President Kim Young-sam struggles to minimize the impact of the high-level scandals ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for April. His ruling party is still stinging from a major setback in local elections in June.
Roh refused to answer questions Monday about whether he gave Kim money for his 1992 presidential campaign, saying he wanted to ``avoid national confusion.″
Kim has denied taking money from Roh. Opposition leader Kim Dae-jung has admitted he received $2.6 million from Roh for his failed presidential bid and has repeatedly claimed that Kim, as the governing party’s candidate, must have received much more.