01.05.2015 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Fight against corruption in South Korea and resignation of Prime Minister

S342311111Let us follow up on the subject that we touched upon earlier, since the events, causing a scandal in South Korea, are rapidly developing and has already led to the resignation of Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo.

Last time we discussed this subject we were at the beginning of the investigation with regard to the Keangnam Enterprises Ltd., with its chairman Sung Woan-jong on the trial on suspicion of embezzling 80 billion won ($74 million) in public funds. The company participated in investment projects for the exploitation of natural resources in Russia at the behest of the former President Lee Myung-bak and many consider the investigation as a pretext to strike at Lee, exposing the scale of corruption in his government and exaggerated economic success.

But on April 9, 2015 the 64 year old Sung committed suicide. At first it seemed that “none will be the wiser”, by analogy of Yoo Byung-eun, religious leader and owner of the company whose actions led to the wreck of the Sewol ferry, but it soon became clear that Sung Woan-jong had a list of prominent politicians in his pocket, who had accepted bribes. Furthermore, shortly before his death, he also mentioned some list in an interview with the opposition newspaper “The Kyunghyang Shinmun”. According to the newspaper correspondent, Sung Woan-jong begged that the list should be mentioned in the paper and that the interview voice recording should be saved.

The discovery of the list and the recording of Sung Woan-jong interview gave the investigation impetus, especially since some well-known people were mentioned in it: Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo, head of the presidential office Lee Byung-kee, two former heads of the presidential office Kim Gee-chung and Huh Tae-yeol, the governor of the South Gyeongsang Province Hong Jun-pyo et al., they all seemed to have received from 100 to 700 million won ($90-630 thousand) from Sung.

Everyone on the list immediately formally denied receiving bribes but the scandal reached all of the President’s opponents, both the right and the left ones. This was obvious by the immediate demand of the resignation of the Prime Minister. And while the leader of the ruling party Saenuri Party Kim Moo-sung declared that the decision on the resignation of Lee Wan-koo has to be carefully weighed, others from the same ruling party, supporting the former President Lee Myung-bak, already started openly discussing the voluntary resignation of the head of the government. The leader of the opposition party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, Moon Jae-in called for the voluntary resignation of Koo, noting that if the investigations finds indiscretions against the acting head of government that it would bring shame to the country.

Meanwhile Lee Wan-koo in an interview denied the accusation of accepting bribes from Sung Woan-jong and claimed that they did not know each other well. However it soon became clear that over the past 20 months the Prime Minister met with Sung Woan-jong more than 20 times. There are captured pictures at numerous events where the two are seated next to each other, which prove the opposite.

On April 20 the opposition officially submitted a request for the dismissal of Lee Wan-koo from the post of Prime Minister. The ruling party objected the request, expressing concern over the resignation of Lee Wan-koo due to the absence of President of the country (Park Geun-hye was visiting Latin America at the time) and called on waiting for the results of the prosecutor’s office investigation. Tension was so high that Lee decided not to wait and resigned the next day. The President of the Republic of South Korea expressed her deep regret on this occasion, stressing that the work of the government had to be continued as usual and urged the public prosecutor’s office to carry out a close investigation of affairs within the framework of renovation of the political system of the country.

So what is the result? On the one hand one should not forget that resigning in case of such crises is a routine matter for South Korean Prime Minister and therefore the situation is not so critical. On the other hand, one must remember that the president’s substitute bench is not very big, since any of its appointees are looked at “under a microscope” with the idea of finding fault, whether it is an accusation of corruption, offensive statements irrespective of their limitations or anything else.

It will be interesting to see how far the investigation will go: the public prosecutor said that regardless of the suicide of the main defendant and the subsequent scandal on the highest level, they intend to bring the investigation to an end and it will be highly interesting to whom and where it will take them. Even if just a part of the list turns out to be true it will be a blow to the prestige and reputation of the inner circle of the President and the ruling party and some will have to leave their posts if implicated in the scandal. However so far it is only the words of Sung and no other evidence has yet to be found, so the version of Sung asking for help of those who once supported him and who are in high positions in the new government and when they refused to help he decided to bring them down with him, should not be discarded.

In this version it is said that Lee Wan-koo was rather in the opposition during the rule of former President Lee Myung-bak, in 2006 he was elected fourth governor of the western province of Chuncheon but some time later resigned in protest against the measures of regional policy of Lee Myung-bak. It was only under Park Geun-hye that he again became one of the leaders of the ruling party and he was appointed to the post of Prime Minister on January 23, 2015. According to the South Korean news agency Yonhap, Lee Wan-koo has a deep understanding of the philosophy of President Park Guen-hye’s government and therefore his resignation will be a blow for her.

But public opinion is positive that “where there is smoke there is fire”, especially as there are hints that the public prosecutor’s office has laid their hands on a new “expanded list” which shows all the circumstances and amounts of “gifts” Sung transferred to influential politicians and public figures from various parties and factions. So it is possible that the scandal has just begun…

Konstantin Asmolov, candidate of historical sciences, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.