South Korea’s Corruption Crisis: Sung Wan-jong’s List and Its Fallout

The South Korean political scene is embroiled in a sensational corruption scandal–one that erupted when Sung Wan-jong, a successful businessman whose company was facing financial problems, was found dead (he had hanged himself), holding onto a note containing the names of South Korean officials he had bribed, and the amounts involved. In this note–now known as “Sung Wan-jong’s list”–Mr. Sung wrote that he gave 700 million won (US$639,971) to former Presidential Chief of Staff Huh Tae-yeol, 300 million won (US$274,273) to Incheon Mayor Yoo Jeong-bok, 100 million won (US$91,424) to South Gyeongsang Province Governor Hong Joon-pyo, and 200 million won (US$182,849) to Busan Mayor Suh Byung-soo. Moreover, shortly before he committed suicide, Mr. Sung gave an interview in which he claimed to have passed on bribes of 30 million Korean Won ($27,390) to Prime Minister Lee Wan Koo and 200 million Won ($182,600) to Hong Moon Jong. Since then, the press has consistently followed up with updates and new evidence related to the bribery rising to the surface.

All eight of the figures Mr. Sung accused of accepting bribes have denied the allegations. Investigations are currently still in process. (Reports indicate that progress has been made on gathering necessary evidence to indict Governor Hong Joon-pyo for violating the political funds act. The next target in line is likely to be former Prime Minister Lee Wan Koo, who (perhaps ironically) had led the fight against corruption upon his appointment as Prime Minister just a few months ago.) Still, the accusations are deeply troubling, given that the accused figures are powerful leaders in domestic politics, and Mr. Sung’s list, if it proves accurate, could be evidence of an entirely contaminated political system that could potentially reach the top of the pyramid in South Korean politics. Moreover, the accusations, if corroborated, could also potentially shatter the legitimacy of the 2012 presidential election, particularly given that Mr. Sung alleges that the bribes he paid to Mr. Hong were to be spent for President Park Geun Hye’s presidential election campaign.

Of course, we must be careful not to leap to conclusions—and as a legal matter, these officials are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Nonetheless, given the seriousness and sensational nature of the accusations, and the threat they pose to the legitimacy of the entire South Korean political system, I would advocate two unusual measures in connection with the investigation and potential prosecution of these cases (and similar cases that might arise in the future):

  • First, the political officials who are subject to investigation in this case or cases like it should be required to temporarily surrender their political rules and withdraw from their official duties. This might seem drastic, but such a step would guarantee that the investigations are free from political pressure and would prevent politicians under investigation from using their political positions and connections to fabricate and/or conceal evidence.
  • Second, in cases involving allegations of such severe and high-level political corruption, a special prosecutor should be appointed, with complete independence from the President and other senior officials. Again, this may seem drastic, but in the cases like those prompted by Mr. Sung’s list, the politicians allegedly involved are all connected–and perceived as connected–with the President. In independent special prosecutor is therefore essential to ensure an appropriate separation of powers throughout the proceedings.

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