Payback Time

Article excerpt

South Korea is pursuing the ill-gotten gains of its last - and most despised - dictator, 25 years after he left office. Chico Harlan reports from Seoul

South Korea's last dictator lives in an L-shaped mansion protected by 15ft stone walls and a plainclothes security team. He almost never goes outside, his lawyer says, given the scrutiny he'd face. Highlighting the extent of change in the nation he once ruled, Chun Doo-hwan is whiling away his golden years in a home that's a virtual prison.

Many South Koreans view the 82-year-old as the face of a bygone but still-painful era - one filled with military coups, repression and flagrant corruption. The nation democratised almost immediately after Chun left office 25 years ago and today is a vibrant multi- party state where presidents serve single five-year terms and shoving matches occasionally enliven National Assembly debates.

But authorities say South Korea's transformation requires a final step: full justice for past wrongdoings. That's why prosecutors are taking steps to reclaim the small fortune in bribes that Chun allegedly collected while in office. A 1997 supreme court ruling ordered him to pay back the money, about $200m (128m), but he has returned only a quarter of it. He says he doesn't have the rest.

But lawmakers say Chun has stashed his fortune in paper companies associated with family members. They note that Chun still lives lavishly, though quietly. He golfs at exclusive clubs. He was spotted last year at a wedding ceremony for his granddaughter at the Shilla, perhaps the most opulent hotel in Seoul.

Koreans regard him as a Nixonian schemer; his corruption was legend even in an era known for political pay-offs. In a nation with deep ideological differences, there's near-consensus about the effort to reclaim Chun's money. Conservatives and liberals in the National Assembly co-operated this summer on legislation allowing investigators to drag away assets of Chun's family, even without proof that they were illegally obtained.

In July, a team of 90 barged into Chun's house, pulling out cabinets, paintings, jewellery and safe-deposit boxes. They also froze some of his wife's assets and searched the homes of 29 family members and associates, according to news reports. Media members remain camped out on the edge of his property. "Mr Chun isn't technically under house arrest," his lawyer, Jung Joo-kyo, said. "But he is not able to easily step out of his house [because of the media]".

The raids are just the latest of Chun's legal troubles. He spent two years in the mid-1990s wearing a prison jumpsuit, the result of a lengthy investigation that found him guilty of mutiny, insurrection and bribery. His sentence - life imprisonment, reduced from a death sentence - was commuted in 1997.

"Chun had ruled in a truly militant way," said Choi Jang-jip, a professor emeritus of political science at Korea University. "You can safely say that Chun Doo-hwan is the worst president Koreans have ever seen. …