A rocky start for 2019 in South Korea

Moon Jae-in

In South Korea, the year has kicked off with a bang. On January 8, the South China Morning Post reported that President Moon Jae-in had made some drastic changes in his administration. Moon, who was scoring big in the polls in the months after his inauguration in May 2017, has seen his popularity erode along with his country’s economy.

How to turn things around? Fire some people. Moon has dismissed his chief of staff, his senior political affairs secretary, and his senior press secretary. No sign, however, of him doing what he actually promised to do when he took office – namely, tame the chaebols, the corrupt, family-run business empires that are at one the engines and the anchors of the South Korean economy.

Trump: taking the opposite approach

On January 10 came another tidbit of news from the Blue House (which, of course, is Seoul’s answer to the White House). While Trump was slashing taxes and regulations, reported the Australian Financial Review, Moon was trying to cure his country’s economic ills by doing the opposite. Surprise! “So far,” wrote Michael Schuman, “it has not worked out as planned.”

Joblessness is up. Growth is down. Wages are flat. Both employers and employees are restive. And small businesses are suffering. Their costs are rising, but they’re not in a position to pass those costs on to buyers. Consequently, they’re shedding employees and finding other ways to cut corners.

The Blue House

All this might have been prevented if Moon had kept his promises and tackled the Great White Whale – the chaebols. But he chickened out. He would probably reject that characterization, pointing out that his budget for 2019 contains policy changes that are intended to reduce the power of the chaebols and help out smaller enterprises.

Others might argue that these initiatives are too little, too late. That Moon, take him for all in all, is essentially kicking the ball down the field. And allowing the South Korean economy to continue experiencing the consequences of his relative inaction.

Yang Sung-tae

Then, on January 11, Choe Sang-hun of the New York Times reported on a unprecedented development in South Korea. Yang Sung-tae, a former justice of the Supreme Court, had been confronted by prosecutors over charges that he had “conspired to delay a case that could upset relations with Japan.”

The case was brought by a group of South Koreans who, during the Japanese occupation, were subjected to forced labor by such firms at Mitsubishi. Yang will probably be indicted – a first in the voluminous annals of modern South Korean corruption.

Moon’s government, then, is on shaky ground. The South Korean judiciary has experienced a major embarrassment. The country’s small businesses are even more precariously positioned than they were a couple of years ago. And the ordinary citizens of South Korea are having more and more trouble making ends meet.

But amid all this loss and insecurity and scandal, the chaebols, as always, continue to stand strong.

South Korea kicks out Samsung’s pet prez

Park Geun-hye

For the last few months, we’ve been following the growing South Korean corruption scandal that involves the Samsung Corporation, President Park Geun-hye, and the President’s best friend Choi Soon-sil. In a country where corruption scandals involving ties between top political leaders and the powerful chaebol – the immense, family-controlled conglomerates that are the pillars of the nation’s economy – are a frequent occurrence, the present scandal was the biggest ever.

South Korea’s Constitutional Court

On Friday, that scandal came to a climax as the eight justices on the country’s Constitutional Court voted unanimously to remove Park Geun-hye from the office of the presidency for committing acts that “betrayed the trust of the people and were of the kind that cannot be tolerated for the sake of protecting the Constitution.” The court’s move, which followed the suspension of Park’s powers in December when the national legislature voted for impeachment, and which took effect immediately, was without precedent in South Korean political history.

Choi Soon-sil in police custody

The unseating of Park caused joy in some quarters and fury in others. A protest outside the courthouse by supporters of Park turned violent, with two protesters dying in the melee. As for Park, now that she no longer enjoys the immunity from prosecution that comes with being president, she is likely to be tried on charges of bribery, extortion, conspiracy, and abuse of power for having extorted millions of dollars from Samsung and other firms in collaboration with her lifelong friend Choi Soon-sil.

Lee Jae-yong

Park’s ouster on Friday followed the arrest, on February 17, of Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung, and the announcement on February 28 that prosecutors would be indicting Lee “on charges of bribery and four other offenses.” As Choe Sang-hun wrote in the New York Times, “Samsung, the nation’s largest conglomerate, has been tainted by corruption before. But the company has been considered too important to the economy for any of its top leaders to spend time behind bars — until now. The jailing of Mr. Lee, who is facing trial, is another potent sign that the old order is not holding.”

The Constitutional Court’s ruling marked a victory for honest government and above-board business practices. As Choe noted, the constitutional orderliness of the process also demonstrated how how far South Korean democracy has come in the last half-century. Ahn Byong-jin of Seoul’s Kyung Hee University told the Times that “the curtain is finally drawing on the authoritarian political and economic order that has dominated South Korea for decades.”

Park’s supporters clash with police

The verdict may also, alas, turn out to have a serious downside. To quote Choe, Park’s departure “is expected to shift South Korean politics to the opposition, whose leaders want more engagement with North Korea and are wary of a major confrontation in the region. They say they will re-examine the country’s joint strategy on North Korea with the United States and defuse tensions with China, which has sounded alarms about the growing American military footprint in Asia.”

Hwang Kyo-ahn

In other words, South Korea, which in recent years has been a reliable bulwark of democracy in the region, may end up being led by people who are eager to appease Kim Jong-un and Beijing and to distance themselves from the U.S. and other democratic allies. The election to replace Park must take place within sixty days; in the meantime, an ally of Park’s, Hwang Kyo-ahn, will serve as acting president. According to the Times, the Trump government “is rushing a missile defense system to South Korea so that it can be in place before the election.”