South Korea’s top judge is behind bars

Samsung HQ, Seoul

In our ongoing coverage of corruption in South Korea, we’ve focused mainly on the leaders of the chaebols – Samsung, Hyundai, and the other massive family-run conglomerates that are the engines of that country’s economy – and on the top politicians with whom they routinely exchange illegal bribes for illegal favors. As we’ve noted, the politicians who get caught participating in these shady shenanigans often end up with long prison terms, while the members of chaebol royalty either escape prosecution, evade incarceration, or – at worst – spend brief periods behind bars before being magically released by court order.

Which brings us to a sphere of South Korean activity that we’ve touched on in passing here but haven’t focused on: namely, judicial corruption. When a President and a chaebol CEO are discovered to be engaged in a some kind of corrupt trade-off, one would expect both to receive the same punishment; but, as noted, that rarely turns out to be the case. How can that be? Well, think about it: who is in a better position to generously grease the hand of a judge – a politician or the head of one of the world’s richest corporations?

Yang Sung Tae

The reality of high-level judicial corruption in South Korea was exposed in late January, when Yang Sung Tae, who was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 2011 to 2017, was arrested on more than forty criminal charges. South Korea is a country where people are used to seeing their former presidents arrested, but this was a first.

Since last autumn, Yang had been under investigation for abuse of judicial authority. In September it was reported that various unions and other groups that had been involved in legal actions during his tenure had accused him of shady dealing. One of those groups, the Korean Metal Workers’ Union, charged that Yang had reversed lower court rulings in several cases not for legitimate judicial reasons but because he had agreed to do so in under-the-table deals with the Blue House (South Korea’s equivalent to the White House).

Park Geun-hye

Prior to his arrest, it was further reported that that the National Court Administration, at Yang’s behest, had allegedly “sought to use politically sensitive trials as bargaining chips to win former President Park Geun-hye’s support for his long-cherished wish to establish a new court of appeals.” Also, he was suspected of having “amassed slush funds with the budget set aside for running court spokespersons’ offices.”

In short, the fellow seems to have been quite prolific and versatile in his crookedness. As the Straits Times pointed out, he’s in good company: both the president who appointed him to the top judicial spot, Lee Myung-bak, and the aforementioned Park Geun-hye, who succeeded Lee, “are now wearing prison garb.” The Times described this as “a poignant reminder of problems surrounding the highest echelon of the nation’s governing system.” What an elegant way of saying that South Korea’s corridors of power stink of corruption.

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