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): Continue reading

There Is No “East Asian Paradox” of Corruption and Development

Imagine that you’re talking to a friend, and you mention that smoking shortens average life expectancy, and that smokers should therefore be encouraged to quit. Suppose your friend replies, “Well, but my uncle Fred smoked every day, and he lived into his 80s.” If your friend means this either (a) as a serious challenge to your empirical claim that smoking is bad for you, or (b) as a critique of your prescriptive argument that smokers should therefore be encouraged to quit, then you would probably find his response absurd on its face. And if your friend were to say that he has posed a serious conceptual conundrum—say he calls it the “Uncle Fred Paradox”—you would probably laugh at him. His argument might seem marginally less ridiculous if he pointed not to his Uncle Fred but to, say, France—which has relatively high smoking rates and relatively high life expectancy—but we probably still wouldn’t view this as a serious challenge to the view that smoking is bad for you, nor would we spend a lot of time wringing our hands worrying about the “France Paradox” in the smoking-health relationship.

Yet for some reason, in serious discussions about the relationship between corruption and economic development, people seem to make precisely this sort of specious argument, and the argument gets taken very seriously by people who should know better. The form the argument takes in this context goes something like this: “It may be true that high corruption seems to be correlated with lower levels of economic development on average. However, many countries in East and Southeast Asia—such as China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia—either achieved or currently are achieving impressively rapid economic growth despite widespread corruption.” This is the so-called “East Asian Paradox” (a term coined, as far as I know, by Professor Andrew Wedeman — see also his recent book). The somewhat more sophisticated version of the argument, developed most prominently in an article by Professor Michael Rock and Heidi Bonnett, notes that although perceived corruption has a negative relationship with growth and investment in most countries (especially small developing countries), this relationship becomes positive in a subsample consisting of five large, newly-industrializing Asian countries (China, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, and Japan), using data drawn from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s.

One encounters more-or-less sophisticated versions of the “East Asian Paradox” argument all the time when talking about the adverse impact of corruption on development. When someone says something like, “Corruption is a major threat to economic development,” someone almost invariably responds with something like, “But what about China? It has achieved impressive economic growth despite widespread corruption.” As far as I’m concerned, this is equivalent to saying, “But what about my Uncle Fred, the lifelong smoker who lived into his 80s?” But in case this is not completely obvious, let me explain why I think the “East Asian Paradox” argument, at least in its usual crude form, is mostly bogus. Continue reading

Guest Post: How to Improve Foreign Bribery Enforcement in Korea

Jeena Kim, a lawyer with Bae, Kim & Lee LLC (Seoul), contributes the following guest post:

South Korea was one of the first signatories to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention in 1997, and in 1998 Korea enacted legislation–the Act on Preventing Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions (Korean FBPA)–to implement the convention domestically. Yet while the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FPCA), which served as a model for the Korean FBPA, has been actively enforced throughout the world, the Korean FBPA is significantly under-enforced, especially against corporate offenders. According to the OECD Working Group on Bribery, by the end of 2012, Korea had sanctioned 16 individuals and four legal entities for foreign bribery under the Korean FBPA, whereas the United States had imposed criminal sanctions on 62 individuals and 77 legal entities, and had imposed civil or administrative sanctions on an additional 41 individuals and 55 legal entities. Moreover, only nine cases have been prosecuted and convicted under the Korean FBPA since 1999, and eight of those involved bribery related to procurements for the U.S. army in Korea–that is, cases in which the bribery occurred in Korea rather than abroad. Korea’s under-enforcement of the Korean FBPA against foreign bribery is not only a problem for Korea, but also hinders multinational efforts to combat corruption, and creates many innocent victims in the host countries of bribed foreign officials.

While there are many possible explanations for the under-enforcement of the Korean FBPA, one of the most significant is the difficulty of collecting evidence of foreign bribery. The United States suffered the same problem in the early years of the FCPA, but the US government effectively overcame this obstacle through a two-pronged strategy: (1) granting a cooperation benefit to offenders that came forward and provided evidence, and (2) threatening severe punishment for uncooperative defendants. Many risk-averse companies therefore had the incentive to conduct a robust internal investigation, and to turn over evidence relevant to their own prosecution to the government in exchange for lenient treatment.

The success story of the United States in enforcing prohibitions against foreign bribery suggests a possible approach for Korea, though one that would need to be implemented in a somewhat different way, through different Korean institutions. Here’s how it could work: Continue reading