But now, it appears voters may have been sold a pig in a poke. Roh the reformer is being dragged into a widening campaign-financing scandal involving several of his closest advisers, who are suspected of bankrolling Roh's campaign the old-fashioned way: by passing the hat to corporate chieftains for illegal campaign contributions. Already, Roh's personal secretary has resigned and the administration's former secretary for general affairs has been arrested. As allegations of illegal fund raising and personal corruption ensnare a growing list of aides and the country's most powerful corporations, Roh's troubled presidency is facing its worst crisis yet. Last week, Roh vetoed a bill passed by the National Assembly that would have established a special prosecutor to look into charges that three of his aides were involved in illegal fund raising and bribery. Although Roh has said he might resign if the scandals cost him public support, he might not get the chance: opposition lawmakers are threatening to impeach him if evidence emerges tying him directly to corruption.
Roh has not been linked to alleged misdeeds by his political associates. (A Blue House spokesman declined requests for an interview with TIME.) But ongoing, wide-ranging investigations by the Supreme Public Prosecutors' Office are coming disturbingly close to the President. According to a copy of an indictment obtained by Time, an influential businessman named Lee Young Roh visited a posh sashimi restaurant in the port city of Pusan on Dec. 19 (the day of the presidential elections). There, he allegedly held a secret dinner meeting with Sohn Gil Seung, CEO of the SK oil and telecom conglomerate. The businessman told the SK chief he should contribute nearly a million dollars to help repay Roh's presidential campaign debts, prosecutors allege. In return, Lee Young Roh promised, SK would get help from the new administration if the company "faced any problems," according to the indictment. During a follow-up meeting in the luxurious Plaza Hotel in downtown Seoul less than a week later, Sohn met with Choi Do Sul—a Roh confidant who is so close to the President he is known as "the eternal butler"—and handed over $915,000 worth of certificates of deposit, prosecutors allege in the indictment, which was lodged against Choi.
South Koreans have seen corruption crackdowns before. The country's traditional ties between government and industry breed an incestuous system of mutual back scratching that is rife with under-the-table payouts. Winning office is expensive—political analysts estimate that Roh's campaign cost at least $125 million, more than that of U.S. President George W. Bush—but tough campaign-financing laws limit the money that can be raised legally from deep-pocket contributors to $208,000 each. Says Roh Kwan Kyu, budget and accounting committee chairman for the Millennium Democratic Party (under whose banner Roh ran for the presidency): "It would be extremely difficult to get elected within the legal amount of money that is allowed."
The current campaign-financing investigation is different from past scandals, however, because it is the first to take aim at a sitting President. Touched off this year when auditors looking into possible accounting fraud at SK's trading arm, SK Global, uncovered a multimillion-dollar political slush fund and bank accounts linked to both Roh's campaign and those of the opposition Grand National Party (GNP), the probe is unprecedented in scope and scale. Political pundits are comparing the dragnet to Italy's "Clean Hands" crackdown of the early 1990s, when reform-minded investigators sent hundreds of businessmen, bureaucrats and prominent politicians to jail. GNP members are also under investigation: GNP lawmaker Choi Don Woong has already admitted to taking $8.3 million from SK.
If Roh is feeling the heat, he has only himself to blame. In the past, the Blue House could sway—or kill—sensitive investigations by putting pressure on senior prosecutors, analysts say. But Roh's promise to clean up South Korea's dirty politics has given a freer hand to law-enforcement officials. At a town-hall-style meeting in March, Roh told a gathering of prosecutors that "there will be no phone calls" from the Blue House squashing investigations. And the public is squarely behind a cleanup drive. The lead prosecutor for the campaign-financing investigation, Ahn Dae Hee—known to be fearless in pursuing politically sensitive cases—even has an Internet fan club. Under the circumstances, the Blue House "can't make the phone call even if they want to," says Kim Young Ho, an expert on Korean politics at Inha University in Inchon.
Smelling blood, the GNP is working overtime to keep investigators focused on the administration. The centerpiece of the strategy was the bill that Roh vetoed last week. GNP chairman Choi Byung Yul immediately protested the veto by launching a hunger strike and ordering GNP lawmakers to boycott the National Assembly. The GNP wants to prove that after the elections, Roh's aides accepted illegal donations with the President's knowledge. "If we find that Roh's involved, we'll impeach him," says GNP lawmaker Hong Joon Pyo. Another GNP legislator, Won Hee Ryong, remarks, "To put it in football terms, this is about who can stay on offense until the April [legislative] elections."
Offense, in this case, means looking less guilty than the other guy. Roh strategists figure the President will triumph because the prosecutors' probe will likely show the GNP, whose candidate was the favorite to win last fall's presidential elections, took in more illegal contributions. But incalculable damage to Roh's once clean image has already been done. One of the biggest embarrassments came in July when a national television network ran a videotape of Roh's personal secretary Yang Gil Seung cavorting in a sleazy nightclub south of Seoul with the club's owner—a man who has been under investigation for tax evasion, pimping and instigation of murder.
Yang resigned. But GNP members are pushing hard to continue the investigation, hoping to show that he accepted bribes from the nightclub owner, Lee Won Ho, in exchange for political help with his legal troubles. (Yang denied accepting bribes.) A key unanswered question: Was Lee involved in illegal fund raising for Roh's campaign? Lee, who is under arrest but denies any wrongdoing, has testified that he helped round up voters for Roh during primary elections. He even got a certificate of appreciation from Roh campaign officials, according to his lawyer. With friends like these, Roh might have all the enemies he needs to lose the public's trust—and his job.