In a hearing on Friday, former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was sentenced to fifteen years of jail time. Lee himself wasn’t present for the hearing and sentencing due to poor health. This marks the fourth former South Korean president to be jailed. The former president insists that these charges are entirely politically motivated.
Lee Myung-bak Found Guilty of Corruption
The charges leveled against Lee Myung-bak are rather serious. He is accused of abuse of power, bribery and embezzlement. His sentence, which calls for 15 years of jail time, also requires the former leader pay $11.5 million in fines. Similarly, Myung-bak’s successor Park Geun-Hye was sentenced to 33 years of jail time in April.
Geun-Hye, who was also South Korea’s first female president, was also the first to be impeached. However, in the mid-2000’s, president Roh Moo-hyun was going to face impeachment hearings for corruption before taking his own life. Investigators alleged that Roh had taken millions in bribe from corporations.
South Korean Presidency and Corruption
If this trend seems disturbingly all-pervasive, there’s a reason for that. South Korea has only been a functioning democracy for a short period of time, historically speaking. The unusual demographic nature of the nation is no more evident than in the consistent imprisonment of its former leaders.
South Korea, it should be noted, is considered a rather safe place to live. Quality of life is generally comparable to other industrialized nations, and civil unrest is uncommon in the modern era. However, there are a few cultural customs that cause presidents to flirt with bribery so often.
Namely, the government’s strong role in shaping the economy has had a profound impact on chaebols. Chaebols are family-held businesses like Samsung that act almost like dynasties passed from son to son. The South Korean presidency has historically taken an active role in helping chaebols shape industry, and, in return, received numerous kickbacks for their trouble.
The cultural norms of reciprocity, then, clash against democratic values. While it is considered good manners to pay someone back for favors in South Korea, this causes issues at the top of the government. When a president is incentivized to look out for large business interests, democracy is undermined. Whether this pattern of consistent bribery and corruption can be reformed is still unclear.