Roh Moo-hyun apologizes for funding scandal

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun apologized on Wednesday for disappointing his country with a political funding scandal that has embroiled his close aides.

In an address before a New Year's news conference, Roh also said the economy -- Asia's fourth largest -- was showing signs of a turnaround in investment and consumption, but called on labor unions to refrain from demanding excessive wage increases.

The funding scandal, involving millions of dollars of under-the-table donations from the country's "chaebol" business conglomerates, has tarnished the 57-year-old Roh's image as a reformist who crusaded to purge politics of corruption.

Prosecutors indicted eight aides and donors last month for their roles in illegal fundraising in the December 2002 election in which Roh defeated conservative opposition leader Lee Hoi-chang.

"The illegal presidential election fundraising and the misdeeds of those around me have disappointed everyone. I again extend my apology," Roh said.

In addition to the aides, eight members of parliament -- including key figures from both 2002 campaigns -- were arrested in connection with a scandal that has rocked Roh's year-old government and embarrassed the opposition ahead of a parliamentary election in April.

The scandal, which emerged in October, has prompted the opposition-controlled parliament to set up a special counsel to investigate three aides to Roh who have been implicated in illegal fundraising and other charges.

Roh is not a subject of the 60-day special investigation, which is being closely watched for its expected impact on the April 15 election.

But when the eight Roh aides or donors were indicted -- three for bribery and five for illegal fundraising and tax evasion -- prosecutors said Roh was aware of some of the improper fundraising.

But the prosecution stopped short of pursuing Roh, citing a constitutional law that exempts sitting presidents from being charged with criminal offences other than grave crimes threatening national security.

Source: Agencies

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