Impeaching Park Geun-hye won’t rid South Korea of its crippling corruption problems
John Power says the rot is so endemic at all levels of politics and business that, short of an overhaul, the people’s power that brought down the president is only illusory
Watching the media coverage of South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, it would be easy to believe that a new epoch has dawned in the Land of the Morning Calm. Headlines have screamed that Park’s suspension from power, weeks after prosecutors named her as a conspirator in a corruption and influence-peddling scandal involving a close confidante, is “historic”. But if we are to associate that weighty term with change, there is reason to be cynical.
It’s clear that Park is finished politically, regardless of whether the nine judges of the Constitutional Court ultimately confirm her impeachment, following allegations that her friend Choi Soon-sil effectively ran the presidency and shook down major businesses for tens of millions of dollars. But the truth is that South Korea is as fundamentally corrupt today as it was before the emphatic vote by lawmakers to strip Park of power. If a scalpel is not taken to the cancer of corruption, which permeates politics and business at all levels, the country won’t be much different in a generation, either.
For all of its odds-defying successes in democratisation, economic development and pop culture, South Korea’s political and business centres are rotten at their core, and have been for decades. Revelations of cronyism and graft are a weekly affair, often unfolding in storylines so cartoonish, with characters so brazen, venal and hapless, that they stretch the limits of belief.
Take the legislature, the National Assembly, which suspended Park from her office. While urging a vote for impeachment, Kim Kwan-young, a lawmaker with the liberal opposition People’s Party, called on his fellow representatives to “stand honourably in front of history”. A fine rhetorical flourish, if an unfortunate choice of phrase, given that Kim was standing with a man – his party’s leader – who served time in prison over an illegal US$500 million pay-off to late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. Like most South Korean politicians convicted of serious crimes, Park Jie-won, an instrumental figure in Park’s impeachment, was granted a presidential pardon in short order. Nor is this an isolated case. At the last National Assembly elections in April, an astonishing four candidates in every 10 had at least one criminal conviction, according to the National Election Commission.
In business, the picture is equally dour. South Korea’s family-run conglomerates have been mills of embezzlement and tax evasion since their founding at the country’s birth. Almost all the leaders of the country’s top 10 chaebol, which generate around 80 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, are convicted criminals. And most have been given a free pass for their crimes. If the judge doesn’t hand down a suspended sentence citing dubious health grounds or, comically, the crooked party’s indispensable contribution to the national economy, the chaebol convict can invariably rely on being pardoned by the president.
While usually convicted of white-collar crimes, the chaebol heads aren’t averse to more hands-on criminality, as famously demonstrated by Hanhwa Group chairman Kim Seung-youn. After his Yale-attending son was injured in a bar brawl, Kim had hired goons abduct the responsible parties to a building site, where he personally administered a beating with the help of a steel pipe. Kim was granted a presidential pardon not long after, freeing him up to commit more crimes – this time involving the fiddling of accounting books. Naturally, he controls Hanhwa, one of the country’s most important companies, to this day.
Watch: Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans celebrate Park Geun-hye’s impeachment
By taking to the streets in their millions until their representatives were forced to act, South Koreans have brought down a powerful symbol of the corruption that blights their country. But without a root-and-branch examination of institutions and cultural norms, this moment of people power is likely to never become anything more than a symbol.
John Power is an Australia-based journalist who reported from South Korea between 2010 and March of this year