South Korea’s Moment for Chaebol Reform is Now

In late 2016, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed from office following revelations of massive corruption in her government. While the scandal included plenty of sensational and salacious material, the core accusations involved improper quid pro quo relations between the Park administration and several chaebols—the massive, dynastically controlled business conglomerates that are the cornerstones of the South Korean economy. Following impeachment, President Park and several senior officials in her administration were arrested, tried, and convicted for a variety of offenses, including bribery, abuse of power, and coercion. In the aftermath of this massive scandal, new President Moon Jae-in swept into office with a commanding majority and a pledge to clean up the mess by instituting strong anticorruption reforms.

However, most of President Moon’s anticorruption initiatives have received mixed reviews at best. For example, President Moon’s proposed Anti-Corruption Agency, though authorized by parliament in December 2019, has yet to be established, and has been roundly criticized for its potential to be used to suppress political opponents. And President Moon’s attempt to exert more centralized control over prosecutors was derided by critics as a retaliatory measure against prosecutors investigating government corruption. But perhaps the greatest disappointment of the Moon administration’s approach to anticorruption is its reluctance to target the root of the country’s most serious corruption problem: the unchecked power of the chaebols. Though President Moon announced chaebol reform as a platform priority, his actions since his election have borne little fruit.

That chaebols were at the center of the Park administration scandal is neither surprising nor unusual. Indeed, chaebols have been at the center of South Korea’s most significant grand corruption cases, and they are routinely implicated in scandal after scandal after scandal. But neither the chaebols themselves nor their senior executives face a meaningful risk of significant liability. Even when prosecutors bring cases, chaebols and their executives benefit from judicial leniency, a phenomenon that has been documented both anecdotally and quantitatively. Indeed, South Korean high courts are infamous for overturning stricter lower court sentences in favor of what has come to be known as the “three-five” rule, available exclusively for chaebol executives: a guilty chaebol executive typically receives a three-year prison sentence, suspended for five years, and subsequently commuted—meaning that the executive serves no prison time. There are two likely explanations for this unusual and counterproductive judicial leniency toward chaebols and their executives. Continue reading