When President Lee Myung-bak strongly emphasized the virtues of integrity three months ago, Korean citizens trusted the words of the president, though with clear skepticism. President Lee promised the public that there would be no “corruption gate” during his term or the chance of him becoming a “lame duck” or experiencing end-of-term lethargy. But now, people find themselves baffled by the consecutive corruption scandals that are have been popping up over the recent months. It is also astonishing that the scandals are from President Lee’s closest associates, the most recent one of which involved the former Vice Minister of Culture.
The disclosure came from a CEO of a mid-sized machinery manufacturer, claiming that he had given Shin Jae-min, former Vice Minister of Culture, around 1 billion won over the past decade. He also alleged that he gave 100 million won to Shin in support of the then-presidential candidate Lee Myung-bak’s campaign activities. One thing that may be ascertained from similar examples in the past is that scandals of such scale as this one tend to entail even more cases of corruption. President Lee should know full well that corruption scandals are a direct route to a lame duck session.
While the recent allegations are clear indicators of failure in government transparency, the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) released annually by Transparency International demands the attention of all Koreans by providing a relatively objective evaluation of the current government. As of 2009, South Korea ranked at 39th place, scoring 5.5 out of 10, while New Zealand came in first place with 9.4 and Somalia the last with an appalling 1.1. This certainly does not mean that Somalia is the most corrupt country or that the Somali people as a whole are the most corrupt. Rather, it means that the people of Somalia are the victims worst affected by critical cases of corruption. Though not as severe, Korea certainly suffers from corruption since its score is far below the OECD average of 7.04. According to the broadcasting agency EBS, a 1-point increase in CPI implies a 25% climb in GNP per capita and a $4,713 rise in income per capita. It means that if the comprehensive problem of official corruption can be ameliorated, Korea may become economically and ethically better off, possibly without making the people work harder.
Then has Korea been getting any better during recent years? While Korea’s place in the National Competitiveness Index has shown a constant upward trend, in contrast its CPI has been decreasing by a margin of 0.1 during the last three years. Instances like overlooking corruption charges against the President of Samsung were especially ill-received by the international society and the prevailing international opinion is that Korea is not yet a country where law enforcement is strictly carried out. According to a survey conducted by a Korean magazine, 87.5% of Korean experts responded that Korean society is corrupt.
Statistics show that corruption is most likely reduced when the chances of being caught and the possibility of actually being punished are high, and also if those convicted face harsh punishments. Sadly, the numbers tell us that the current administration has sacrificed its integrity in exchange for economic improvements and national competitiveness. Figuratively speaking, President Lee’s administration may have built strong arms, but in the process, it ended up getting its hands dirty. Those tainted hands, no matter how hard the government tries to hide them, are bound to show sooner or later.