World View Why Korea’s cor­rup­tion scan­dal is noth­ing new

Fiji Sun - - Comment - ASIA RE­PORT BBC

As­can­dal is swirling round the South Korean pres­i­dent. Park Gun-hye has been ac­cused by pros­e­cu­tors of be­ing com­plicit in a scheme to pres­sure big com­pa­nies to do­nate mil­lions of dol­lars to funds con­trolled by a very close friend. Some of the big­gest fam­ily-run firms - Sam­sung, Lotte, SK - have been raided, along with var­i­ous gov­ern­ment of­fices. Ms Park’s lawyer says pros­e­cu­tors have “built a house of fan­tasy” but the al­le­ga­tions high­light a his­tor­i­cal para­dox, say the BBC’s Stephen Evans in Seoul.

In ev­ery­day life, it seems like one of the most hon­est coun­tries on the planet - and yet pres­i­dent af­ter pres­i­dent has ended up en­tan­gled in scan­dals over money. The cloud of cor­rup­tion rarely lifts from the pres­i­den­tial palace. Take the last four pres­i­dents: Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) was him­self un­tainted but two of his sons were jailed for tak­ing bribes. Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) com­mit­ted sui­cide af­ter leav­ing of­fice as cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tors closed in over al­le­ga­tions he ac­cepted US$6m (F$12.64m) in bribes.

Lee Myung-bak (2008-13) apol­o­gised af­ter his elder brother was sen­tenced to two years in prison for ac­cept­ing US$500,000 (about F$1m) from busi­ness­men in re­turn for in­flu­ence over the gov­ern­ment. And now the cur­rent pres­i­dent, Park Gun­hye, is ac­cused by pros­e­cu­tors of be­ing com­plicit in a scheme to pres­sure mil­lions of dol­lars out of big com­pa­nies. There does seem to be a pat­tern: even if the pres­i­dent seems un­touched, those close to him - or now her - har­vest op­por­tu­ni­ties for reap­ing cash from their close­ness to power. It’s some­times called “pay to play”. And all in a coun­try where you can leave a full wal­let on a ta­ble to re­serve a place in a bar in the full con­fi­dence that it will not be stolen. You can for­get your cam­era in a pub­lic place and re­turn un­wor­ried to find it in the same spot or even moved to the side and left safely un­der a shel­ter.

But all the pres­i­dents of the demo­cratic era - not to men­tion the heads of the fam­i­ly­owned con­glom­er­ates, the so-called chae­bols - have been soiled by cor­rup­tion, ei­ther per­son­ally or by their close friends and fam­ily lever­ag­ing their ties to the leader. Some­times pol­i­tics and busi­ness go handin-dirty-hand to­gether: a chae­bol head goes to jail and then the pres­i­dent par­dons him. Why is this? How do you ex­plain an al­most naive hon­esty at the bot­tom and an un­re­li­able moral compass at the top?

Firstly, hon­esty is not such a sim­ple qual­ity. We can be hon­est in some cir­cum­stances and not in oth­ers. Even though there is a high level of trust be­tween peo­ple in South Korea, other mea­sures of hon­esty paint a less idyl­lic view.

Re­searchers at the Univer­sity of East Anglia in the UK de­vised an ex­per­i­ment to test per­sonal hon­esty in 15 coun­tries. They got peo­ple from each coun­try to toss a coin pri­vately and then re­port the result. The par­tic­i­pants were told they would get more money if heads came up than tails (even though the ac­tual prob­a­bil­ity was 50:50). The more the peo­ple in­volved re­ported that they had had more than 50 per cent of heads, the more dis­hon­est they were deemed to be. South Korea came out low (though not quite as dis­hon­est as China, but way below the UK, the most hon­est coun­try on the ba­sis of this par­tic­u­lar test). Away from the test and back in the real world, dis­hon­esty at the top (in busi­ness and pol­i­tics) is not un­known. One of the rea­sons is the way South Korea is run, with the gov­ern­ment his­tor­i­cally tak­ing a strong role in the di­rec­tion of the econ­omy. The gov­ern­ment of Park Chung-hee (the cur­rent pres­i­dent’s dic­ta­to­rial fa­ther) started the mod­erni­sa­tion of South Korea by di­rect­ing chae­bol heads to es­tab­lish in­dus­tries. As Pro­fes­sor Robert Kelly of Pu­san National Univer­sity put it: “The op­por­tu­ni­ties for graft (political cor­rup­tion) are as ob­vi­ous as they are ex­ten­sive. These are the sorts of re­la­tion­ships that have re­peat­edly done-in Korean political and chae­bol elites. Un­til the state steps back from the econ­omy, such scan­dals will con­tinue.”

There are also deeper roots, ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Kyung Moon Hwang of the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Con­fu­cian­ism “val­ues not only hi­er­ar­chy in so­cial re­la­tions but also rec­i­proc­ity, the idea that one must re­pay kind treat­ment”.

“This is in gen­eral a good thing, but in the political arena, this can lead to of­fi­cials ex­pect­ing some­thing in re­turn for their de­ci­sions.” Be­fore the cur­rent demo­cratic era, which has only been go­ing for 30 years, despo­tism, Pro­fes­sor Hwang said, trig­gered “the im­pulse to pay bribes, re­gard­less of the of­fi­cial’s wishes, know­ing that the of­fi­cial will feel ob­li­gated to re­turn the favour”. On this ar­gu­ment, old habits die hard, and demo­crat­i­cally elected politi­cians re­tain old despotic ways of think­ing.

But there is a hope­ful side to this: pros­e­cu­tors do pur­sue mis­cre­ants, peo­ple protest against cor­rup­tion in their hun­dreds of thou­sands, new laws do get passed (like a re­cent cap on the amount of money which can be spent on en­ter­tain­ing pub­lic ser­vants, from politi­cians to teach­ers), and the press is tenacious.

As Pro­fes­sor Kelly put it: “Cor­rup­tion in South Korea is of­ten un­cov­ered and sub­ject to scru­tiny. Pros­e­cu­tors pur­sue it and the pub­lic gets in­censed. “Future cheaters,” he added, would have to reckon on be­ing caught and pun­ished. “Clean­ing out the dirt may be ugly but it is hap­pen­ing.”

Park Gun-hye, is ac­cused by pros­e­cu­tors of be­ing com­plicit in a scheme to pres­sure mil­lions of dol­lars out of big com­pa­nies.

Ar­ti­cle pub­lished by BBC

South Korea’s Pres­i­dent Park Gun-hye is not the first Pres­i­dent to be caught in a num­ber of scan­dals.

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