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South Korea

Giant hurdles ahead in South Korean graft fight

With a fifth former president facing prosecution for wrongdoing, incumbent Moon Jae-in faces a tough task in tackling ills that affect politics and business 

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 3:06am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 3:06am

Visitors to South Korea find it the most honest of countries; a wallet left carelessly on a table in a restaurant will still be there, its contents untouched, when it is remembered hours later. But those morals of everyday life do not extend to politics and business, where corruption scandals are regular.

They go right to the top, the presidential Blue House seemingly under a constant cloud, the recent arrest of Lee Myung-bak making him the fifth former president to face prosecution for wrongdoing. The incumbent, Moon Jae-in, has made breaking the ties a priority, but so endemic a problem cannot be solved until all in society support such change.

Ex-South Korean president arrested ‘for taking US$10.2m in bribes’

Moon’s campaign has strong public support; South Koreans have long sought an end to the graft and cronyism that have sullied their political system. They endorse their president’s promise to dismantle the chaebol, the giant family-run corporations such as Samsung that have such a strong grip on the economy and society.

The extent of the corruption scandal that brought down Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye, and top officials was met with surprise, but the nature of the allegations against Lee are equally shocking. He faces more than a dozen charges, among them abuse of power, tax evasion and bribery. 

But as necessary as Moon’s efforts are to make South Korea clean and transparent and its economy healthy, they do not have wide political support. So many opposition politicians have been ensnared that he has been accused of being motivated by revenge.

Delinking politics and big business is also not straightforward given that the nation’s economic success is based on conglomerates having created jobs in return for government contracts. There is also the ingrained Korean preference for loyalty above all else, which has meant that senior government officials and company executives have surrounded themselves with relatives, friends and school classmates rather than making appointments based on merit.

Why South Korea’s Moon wants to weaken his presidential powers

The allegations against Lee encompass all the ills affecting South Korea. Moon’s attempts to overcome decades-old practices and culture face giant hurdles. But using the light touch of past presidents to bring about change is no longer acceptable with a slowing economy and public outrage.