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A lesson from South Korea

Written By: - Date published: 8:19 am, May 10th, 2017 - 9 comments
Categories: Abuse of power, accountability, corruption, International, Politics - Tags: ,

The election of Moon Jae-in to become President of South Korea is a breath of fresh air.

What the South Korean electorate has been dealing with for nearly a year shows a sickness between their political and commercial orders. They have been incredibly tightly intertwined for nearly half a century.

President Park Geun-He was impeached late last year by Parliament, ousted as President, and indicted on charges of collecting or demanding US$52 million in bribes. Samsung’s top executive, Lee Jae-Yong (whose family owns it), is also under arrest and trial. It’s claimed she also tapped retail conglomerate Lotte, and semiconductor conglomerate SK.

The exposure of alleged paid corruption from Samsung to the President of South Korea has led to the downfall of them both.

It has exposed the dangers to democracy from strong state-directed development growing so interdependent on the local corporations and families that it has protected and developed (and let me confess, if New Zealand had proportionally as many locally-owned multinationals as Korea did, we would be a very rich and exceedingly influential country). The codependent relationship of locally grown corporations and the South Korean state go back to Park Chung Hee in the 1960s and 1970s, before that to American colonisation and local response, and before that to the imprint of Japanese bureaucratic machinery. There’s history, some bad, much good.

You can get a real sense of how these mighty South Korean companies called “chaebol” that now stand astride east Asian business have grown like vines around a great tree, here.

The word “chaebol” comes from the combination of the characters for “rich” and “clan.” It applies to large groups of interconnected companies that are usually dominated by wealthy families. South Korea has several, but the best known outside the country are Hyundai, LG and Samsung. Others include Hanjin, Kumho, Lotte and SK Group.

Now, there’s all kinds of democracy, and who the hell are we in New Zealand to demand a democratic purity test? Korea started off in a far worse place socially and economically than New Zealand only forty years ago. On most economic measures they outstrip us. But there appears to have been a price, which the South Korean people have noticed.

The Korean people have now elected Moon Jae-in.

I sure ain’t saying he’s what many New Zealanders would consider socially liberal. He opposes homosexuality, for example. But he’s planning to dump their equivalent of the SIS, and dump the oppressive security laws, greatly tax the wealthy, roast the mega-corporations and who gets on their boards, clean out corruption, and hugely strengthen the public sector.

His election is a chance in some small measure to expose to sunlight this interdependence between chaebol and democracy. It’s a real lesson.

9 comments on “A lesson from South Korea ”

  1. gsays 1

    i understand the new sth korea leader is seeking to build bridges to the nth korean regime.

    • Ad 1.1

      The key question for the new leader is whether he softens relations with China’s leadership, and hardens it with the US. That will clarify the view of him from Pyonyang.

      • adam 1.1.1

        Ad, the South Korean military will not let him get to far from the USA. They just won’t, they rely on to much intelligence and hardware to operate without their help at this point. And some of the military are steadfastly convinced, rightly or wrongly – that they will be fighting a shooting war, before it is all over.

  2. Ed 2

    Here’s a really interesting article on the exact subject you mention.
    From ‘Guardian long reads’ series.

    ‘My two messed-up countries: an immigrant’s dilemma
    While her birthplace, South Korea, stood on the brink of political chaos, Suki Kim watched her adopted home of the US go into meltdown after Trump’s election. Stuck between past and future, she found herself in an impossible position’


  3. saveNZ 3

    Interesting post. NZ doesn’t seem to have any big companies that are global household names – mostly because we sold off parts of our assets and IP offshore and continue to do so as our economic strategy. Now we seem to be getting corruption too, (worst of both worlds) so maybe we will just have small to medium corrupt offshore companies…

    Anyone else think this is a backwards strategy?

    The closest we might have is Fonterra and the farm and assets themselves are being sold off so it will not be long before Fonterra as we know it as a Kiwi owned and run brand is lost.

  4. Whispering Kate 4

    I wish him well but I see in the near future some CIA meddling going on and a subtle destabilisation of his Government. I can’t see the US putting up with his refreshing way of clearing out corruption and making friendly moves towards North Korea. Fun games ahead for the poor bugger – I hope he has a heavy security detail surrounding him.

  5. He might be advised to head to Germany to find the lessons of reconcilliation the Germans learned after the wall came down.

    Does the Korean peninsula show a polarity of political view? Are they opposites or on a spectrum?

    Good luck in the years ahead to anyone who lives there or close to there – sometimes a little plant gets squashed when big beasts position for ascendance.

  6. Sable 6

    In my opinion SK (like Japan) is another US enclave. I would say making meaningful change there especially in areas of surveillance, etc, would be far from easy given the US’s propensity for meddling.

    Lets revisit in a year or so and see how many of the promises have been fulfilled.

  7. Stuart Munro 7

    NZ has much to learn from Korea – the routine prosecution of the corrupt parts of outgoing administrations is a good place to start.

    We’d do well to learn some economics – because Billy the Braggart has never had a clue wtf he was doing, and the self-styled experts at Treasury plainly aren’t much better.

    Significant taxes on property accumulation & speculation. An immigration service that isn’t a rubber stamp. Lower crime levels by an order of magnitude. Cost effective health service second only to Taiwan.

    If Korea had NZ’s natural resources they’d be richer than Croesus.

    The main difference politically is probably that while NZ governments lick the bottoms of corporations and hope their supposed expertise will benefit the public, Korean governments contract corporates and hold them to performance standards. They privatized their telecoms but broke them in two and kept legislating until they actually competed. Remember Max Bradford’s power theft? The lying companies would have been obliged to actually produce the promised savings or lose the assets, be broken up, and have their CEOs in prison. McCully would be in prison for decades just for what we know now…

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