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.