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S. Korean Politician Sentenced for Bribery - 2004-01-29

An influential South Korean politician has been found guilty of bribery and sentenced to prison. Kwon Roh-gap was convicted of taking up to $17 million from the Hyundai Group conglomerate - the largest amount exchanged in any of South Korea's many influence-peddling cases.

The Seoul District Court handed down a five-year jail term to Kwon Roh-gap, a former lawmaker and a close confidant of former President Kim Dae-jung.

Kwon was found guilty of taking $17 million from one of South Korea's largest conglomerates, the Hyundai Group. The sum is the largest to change hands in any South Korean bribery case. Kwon, who denies the charges and plans to appeal the verdict, was convicted of taking the money in 2002 to help Hyundai open a casino and shops at a North Korean tourist resort. He kept about a quarter of the money for himself and took it in cash to avoid detection.

During the trial, prosecutors said the 74-year-old politician "turned a blind eye on the public's hope for clean government."

South Korean politics have suffered from corruption scandals for more than a decade and the public is deeply disillusioned because so many politicians have accepted illegal payments. The scandals have touched ruling and opposition parties and have included party leaders.

President Roh Moo-hyun has admitted that many in his party took bribes, but says they have received much less than the opposition. The former labor lawyer, who pledged to clean up the government's image, has not been directly accused of any wrongdoing.

The Kwon case is one of a number of high-profile corruption cases involving lawmakers and major South Korean conglomerates. Earlier this month, South Korean prosecutors arrested eight lawmakers on charges of bribery and illegal financing and say they will widen the probe in the coming weeks.

South Korean political analysts say the investigation has strengthened voters' demands for broad political reform.

Recent surveys indicate that many voters will use a general election on April 15 to register their dismay. An increasing proportion say they will avoid mainstream lawmakers and plan to vote for new and younger candidates who are unsullied by the corruption scandals.