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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Korean Corruption Scandal

The influence of the Chaebols

Young Park

Our guest blogger is Young Park, director of the Sustainable Business Ethics Research Center at Sogang University in Korea, who served as the Global Jesuit Visiting Fellow at the Ethics Center last spring.  

On December 9, the Parliament of South Korea passed a motion to impeach President Geun-hye Park over her alleged link to a corruption scandal involving her closest friend and confidante, Soon-sil Choi. President Park was accused by prosecutors of helping Choi solicit from the biggest Chaebols – including Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motors – donations that Choi used to enrich herself (Chaebols are Korean family-owned conglomerates).

Over the past seven weeks, the scandal has dragged President Park’s approval ratings to historic lows of 4 percent and driven millions of peaceful candlelight rally participants into the streets of Seoul demanding her immediate stepdown. Many angered and frustrated Koreans have a strong suspicion that a lack of good judgment made an incompetent President Park invite her behind-the-scenes patron, Choi, to meddle in national affairs with no legitimacy at all to do so.

Her friendship with Choi’s family was initiated just after the tragedy of 1974 when her mother was assassinated by someone trying to kill her father, dictator Park Chung-hee who was also assassinated five years later. President Park suffered two mental traumas of losing her parents to bullets while she was in her twenties. It was found that the pastor Tae-min Choi, father of her confidante, pitched his family’s tent to prevent anyone else from having access to President Park for the last 37 years since she was ousted from the Blue House (the Korean White House) after the assassination of her father. This gives the Korean people an opportunity to learn a precious lesson: That the president's emotional stability is more important than his or her political capability – especially in Korea where the power given to a president is the most extensive in the world.

Four years ago, when President Park started her government, the Korean people had high expectations that she would be less likely to be involved with corruption because she had no family members beside her. This argument was strongly supported by many because all the previous presidents’ corruption involved their family in some way. But the fact that she had no family did not stop President Park from being corrupt. 

The miracle on the Han River (as the period of tremendous economic growth in Korea is called) made Korea into the world’s 11th largest economy from its previous status as one of the poorest countries in the world in the aftermath of the Korean War. Following the strong leadership of the Korean government, Chaebols played an important role in this growth as an engine of the export-oriented Korean economy. Through its national strategy, the Korean government permitted Chaebols to be competitive in the global market while also entering local markets in either monopolistic or oligopolistic fashion. 

Many Korean people agree that it is time to shift to a new paradigm of national governance where fair competition is guaranteed across the local markets throughout society. Among Korean politicians, the issue of a constitutional amendment to change political structures – and to make such structures less susceptible to the corruption that promotes unfair competition – has been surfacing.  

Dec 12, 2016

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