Dirty deeds in high places nothing new to South Koreans

Disgraced ex-president Park Geun-hye’s 24-year sentence no surprise to populace

Supporters of former president Park Geun-hye react after a court sentenced her to 24 years in prison and a fine of 18 billion won. Photograph:  Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Supporters of former president Park Geun-hye react after a court sentenced her to 24 years in prison and a fine of 18 billion won. Photograph: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

 

Although the 24-year sentence doled out to former president Park Geun-hye was a hefty punishment for deep levels of corruption, dirty dealings in high places are nothing new to South Koreans.

As well as giving her a heavy jail sentence, the Seoul central district court fined Park 18 billion won (€13.7 million), convicting her of 16 counts of corruption, including bribery, coercion and abuse of power. She will appeal the sentence.

But for most Koreans, the big news on Friday was the cancellation of three baseball games over high levels of pollution, rather than the disgraceful end to Park’s career, as corruption has become so endemic in South Korea’s political life.

Millions of South Koreans took to the streets last year demanding the end of Park’s government, and they succeeded in having her impeached. But while public anger was intense, her activities were seen as merely another example of the murky ties between government and business at the upper echelons of Korean society.

Everyone believes the giant “chaebol” conglomerates and the government enjoy too cosy a relationship, but no one knows how to address the situation. One of the reasons for the popularity of Moon Jae-in’s administration is that, as a liberal, he seems less involved in the political miasma that links the conservatives and the ultra-rich.

Corrupt officials

Witness the sense of resignation when the heir to the giant Samsung conglomerate, Lee Jae-yong, walked free after an appeals court gave him a 2½-year suspended sentence for his role in the corruption case that toppled Park Geun-hye.

The list of corrupt officials in public life in South Korea is bewildering and wide-ranging. Ms Park’s conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who governed from 2008-2013, was arrested and jailed in March for graft, tax evasion, and embezzlement.

The popular liberal Roh Moo-hyun, who served from 2003 to 2008, jumped to his death in 2009 after a corruption investigation into his family’s affairs.

Ms Park was the daughter of South Korea’s late dictator Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated in 1979, and his wife Yook Young-soo, who was assassinated in 1974.

The dictator was succeeded by two former army generals, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, both of whom spent time in jail for bribery, treason and other charges after leaving office.

Stepped down in disgrace

Their political opponents, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, also stepped down in disgrace after their sons and associates were arrested for various corruption scandals.

In 2015, former prime minister Lee Wan-koo resigned in a corruption scandal after a building tycoon Sung Wan-jong took his own life, leaving a note accusing those who had received money from him, including Lee.

And there is no consensus on how to deal with corruption.

While the ruling Democratic Party welcomed the sentence, saying Park had used her position to “undermine constitutional order, damage the rule of law and secure personal interests from conglomerates”, Park’s own party, the opposition Liberty Korea Party, criticised the decision to broadcast the trials, saying it was “like a sports programme”.

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