Allegations that South Korea's president, Kim Dae Jung, bought his historic summit with the leader of North Korea in June 2000 are tarnishing the Nobel Peace Prize winner's last days in office.
Opposition politicians are demanding that a special prosecutor be named to investigate why government loans worth $186 million were moved through a corporate ally of the president to a North Korean bank account in the days before Kim went to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
The opposition members allege that the money was paid to persuade the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, to receive the South Korean president for a summit. The event, which was the first time that leaders from the two Koreas had met, was widely hailed as a breakthrough in a half-century of hostility. The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced Kim Dae Jung's selection four months later, citing the meeting and Kim's history as a democracy activist.
Kim Dae Jung's office has denied wrongdoing in connection with the payments, but with qualifications that have left many South Koreans unconvinced, opinion polls show. Some of the president's allies say that funneling payments to North Korea is the price of opening up its closed society and economy and is therefore in South Korea's interest.
A government audit late last month confirmed a complex money trail that funneled money through at least three banks in three countries using 71 checks. The audit has prompted debate on the possibility of charges against Kim Dae Jung, whose reputation for personal integrity during years of struggle as an activist in South Korea won him global acclaim.
"The president is not exempt from being subject to legal prosecution," said Park Jong Hee, a spokesman for the opposition Grand National Party.
The allegations have grown within a few months into a full-fledged scandal in the closing days of Kim Dae Jung's term, which ends on Feb. 25. It is complicating plans of the president-elect, Roh Moo Hyun, to continue Kim's "sunshine policy" of assistance to North Korea.
"This scandal will be a burden for the new government," said a top official on Roh's transition team, Suh Dongman. "It's a hot issue, so for the time being we can't have economic aid to North Korea."
Opponents charge that a government loan was arranged under pressure from the Blue House, South Korea's counterpart to the White House, and transferred by a branch of the Hyundai conglomerate to North Korea a day before Kim was scheduled to go to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il. "This proves the government's biggest achievement, the South-North summit, was bought with money," the opposition party said in a statement.
The opposition contends that a hitch in the financial transfer was the reason the summit was suddenly and inexplicably delayed for a day just before Kim Dae Jung was to leave Seoul. They also allege that other branches of Hyundai transferred more money, bringing the payments made to North Korea before the summit to nearly $1 billion.
"The only way to wash away the grave crime of deceiving the people is to come clean and offer an apology," Park Hee Tae, acting chairman of the opposition party, told the South Korean media.
A public opinion poll released recently by Korea Gallup and the Chosun Ilbo newspaper showed 63 percent of those polled believe the payments were made to secure the summit. North Korea's recent defense of Hyundai -- labeling the allegation a "sinister bid to put a brake on inter-Korean relations" -- only fueled those suspicions.
Kim Dae Jung's chief of staff, Park Jie Won, said that "the government didn't give a cent to the North" and that the money was paid by Hyundai to develop an industrial park there. Hyundai, while slow to respond to the allegations, has said it has long paid money to North Korea as part of its efforts to secure business as the isolated communist country opens to outside investment.
"We are criticized and labeled as pumping free cash to North Korea," Kim Yoon Kyu, the chief executive of Hyundai Asan Corp., said in a recent interview. But he said social changes in North Korea resulting from the contacts are significant. "We always make sure that we want the money to be used in building factories, acquiring technology, and improving their standard of living," he said.
A similar argument has been offered by some of Kim Dae Jung's defenders, who say the payment was a worthwhile expenditure to start the process of resolving the long enmity between North and South Korea. Such bribes were necessary, they say, and justified as an "act of governing" -- a rough equivalent to something required "for the national interest."
"You have to understand that North-South relations were very abnormal then," said Koh Yu Hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "Every conversation, every trade we had with North Korea was accompanied by money. It was done as part of a peaceful strategy of changing North Korea."
In a statement released late last month, Kim Dae Jung also implied that defense, saying that "if the money was spent on promoting South-North economic cooperation, it is not desirable to make it a subject of judicial judgment, for the sake of national interests."
The South Korean prosecutor's office seemed to have accepted that argument and announced last week that it would delay any probe, preferring to give time for a "political solution."
But critics weren't buying that defense. "This is humiliating for the prosecutor's office," said Park Jong Hee, the Grand National Party spokesman. The "act of governing" justification, he said, "cannot exist in a free democratic society. It's something from the medieval times."
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.