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.

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.