A Case Study of South Korea Rise and Fall in Anti-corruption Combats by Haocheng Bi @ University of California, Los Angeles
In late October 2016, Jay Y. Lee, the head of Samsung South Korea’s largest conglomerate, was reported to “have bribed totaling more than $36 million” to Choi Soon-sil, a long-time friend of President Park Geun-hye, in return for president’s favorable policies. This Choi-gate scandal again drew close public attention to the two significant while seemingly contradictory trends: “third wave” democratization and the recurrence of corruption scandals in those newly democratized states. Among those states, South Korea (hereafter, referred to as Korea) stands out as a typical example. In Korea, democratic erosion has long been characterized by the strategic relationship between politicians and chaebol (i.e. big business groups in Korea). This post suggests that democratization itself is not the cure for corruption. It also highlights that the lack of vertical accountability, the collective action problem, and the limitation of Korean ombudsman have collectively contributed to Korean democratic backsliding and provides some insights into the solution to this democratization paradox.
As a young democracy, Korea owns a set of well-established democratic institutions, including anti-corruption laws and free elections. But why are corruption scandals still a recurrent topic in Korea? Unfortunately, the democratization alone failed to rein in domestic corruption. The reason is while the 1987 democratization aimed at a decentralized state, it did not include corporate reform. As the establishment of democratic elections indirectly increased politicians’ need and competitions for political donations, the business sector has gained a favorable bargaining position. Indeed, as free election increased the need for political donation, 1987 democratization unexpectedly increased politicians’ reliance on chaebol’s financial support and encouraged a strategic business-politics relationship. This power imbalance holds true in modern day Korea, which could not be better expressed by “the Chaebol Republic”, a nickname Korean citizens made.
After the Choi-gate scandal was reported, South Koreans were furious. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the street to call for the “step-down” of Choi and President Park. However, what we do not see in these Samsung corruption scandals is the bottom-up accountability from the public prior the scandal, which can be explained by a long history of authoritarian rule and Confucian influences. Up until 1987, Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship that mainly emphasized economic growth and strict social hierarchy with little respect for political participation and accountability. Due to the long history of authoritarian rule, the vertical accountability and universalistic belief have not yet been adopted even by modern day Korea. On the other hand, further research has suggested that the lack of vertical accountability is also due to the nuanced but consistent influence of Confucian political culture. As a common knowledge, Confucianism harbors a strict hierarchy in all walks of society. Under Confucianism, subordinates in business and politics are not expected to blow the whistle even when they notice the corrupt behaviors of their senior officers.
On another aspect, Korea’s history of authoritarian rule and Confucian ideologies changed the expectations agents hold towards each other and have made collective actions against corruption extremely difficult. Rothstein is the pioneer of applying “interactive rationality” to understanding corruption. By interactive rationality, he refers to the fact that rational players consider each others’ strategies when making their own decisions. After all, no one wants to be the only honest player in a corrupt game. This finding holds true in Korea and even its neighbor Japan. When the corrupt rules are institutionalized and constantly acted upon, collective action problem arises from agents’ belief that others will not cooperate and their personal efforts will be minimal. As a result, public whistle-blowing to challenge state-business corruption, like 2016 one, is made almost impossible.
We now turn our attention to another important player in Korean anti-corruption combats — Anti-corruption & Civil Rights Commission (ACRC), Korean ombudsman. Many doubts and concerns about the limitations of ACRC are raised after the Samsung corruption was widely covered. Launched in 2008, ACRC is the key anti-corruption agency in Korea. Despite its quite prominent achievements in dealing petty corruption, the lack of investigative power and a comprehensive target list have limited ACRC’s effectiveness in handling the problematic state-business corruption. In terms of authority, the ACRC is only able to make recommendations “without a mandate to independently initiate investigations“. The insufficiency of investigatory and prosecuting powers leaves ACRC susceptible to a credibility crisis, as Korean public officials will likely attempt to undermine ACRC’s public approval and credibility once they feel threatened by investigations. In addition, regarding its targets, ACRC mainly focuses on middle and lower-level officials, leaving high-ranking officials and the private sector largely unregulated. Given the fact that money politics in Korea is commonly conducted by high-ranking officials and big businesses, ACRC should focus its efforts on combating corruption among high ranking officials and the private sector.
On a positive note, Korea’s well-funded civil society and a free, independent media sector are more effective long-term change-promoters, and their potential is promising. Although civic power and collective actions are not new concepts in Korea, they will likely be the most prevalent idea.
What does this case tell us about other developmental states?
Firstly, if not culturally specific, democratic transitions are not guaranteed to truly democratize the states. Though overthrowing a military regime, the democratic transition in 1987 failed to take either authoritarianism or Confucian influence into consideration and left the potential of civil surveillance unexplored. Secondly, as proposed by many studies, the independence and investigative power of the anti-corruption agency are crucial to its well-functioning and the study of ACRC dawns on us its applicability in developmental states.
 Huntington, SP., The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).
Kim, S. (2000) The Politics of Democratization in Korea: The Role of Civil Society, Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Bo Rothstein, “Corruption and Risks”. Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden, 2011.
Maor, Moshe, Feeling the Heat? Anticorruption Mechanisms in Comparative Perspective.
 Photo by Ahn Young-joon, “Park Geun-hye should step down”, VOA