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Korea targets corruption at automaker Hyundai

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Nonetheless, prosecutors say they will also indict the younger Mr. Chung and other Hyundai executives in coming days.

They also have been interrogating government officials, one of whom, a former director in Seoul City Hall, committed suicide Monday after having been questioned about favors bestowed in a deal to expand the Hyundai headquarters at bargain costs. And last week, the chairman of the government's National Agricultural Cooperative Federation was jailed after being accused of accepting bribes for the project.

At the heart of the case, say prosecutors, lies Chung's desire to insure his son's inheritance of power.

"No one is talking about the failure of the chaebol," says Mr. Jang, of Korea University. "It's not an issue of dismantling the chaebol system." But, he adds, "There has to be a balance between the role the chaebol can play and that of small-and-medium enterprise" - companies play a role in the supply chain on which manufacturers such as Hyundai Automotive rely for parts.

Indeed, the chaebol, with tentacles extending into every key industrial sector and immediate ownership of more than half the country's business assets, may well escape the crisis relatively unscathed.

The pattern is familiar to analysts who have seen chaebol investigations under every president since Park Chung Hee, the dictator whose allocation of entire spheres of business to one tycoon or another helped the system to grow. Mr. Park, assassinated in 1979, is often credited with leading the rise of the chaebol system.

"They would like to squeeze the chaebol," says Park Nei Hei, a former dean at Sogang University and consultant for Boston Consulting Group. "They'll go after this slush fund at Hyundai Automotive. Then, after a period, they'll let them off."

To Mr. Park, who sits on the board of the Samsung Corp., the trading and construction arm of the Samsung Group, the biggest chaebol, the logic is simple. "They have no choice," he says. "They cannot do anything to the chaebol. They make a fuss. After a while, it's all forgotten."

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