[VIEWPOINT]‘Fess up and get off the hookWhatever his shortcomings, President Roh Moo-hyun is a student of Korean history. He realizes that the close ties between Korean corporations and the government are often misconstrued by outsiders, and he wants to do right by everyone.
Suggestions that he suddenly change the rules of the game and get tough with leading businessmen who have financed the country’s politics for years are misguided.
Korea is at a crossroads in its development. Fifty years ago, in America, nearly everyone had electricity, heat, refrigerators, television and a telephone. Since then, things have only gotten better. In contrast, Korea was just emerging from the devastation of the Korean War, and basic amenities were scarce if not totally absent.
How, then, did Korea become what it is today? By the hard work and sacrifice, of every man, woman, and child. Korea is overpopulated, it has no natural resources to speak of and it is surrounded by inhospitable and often hostile neighbors.
During the years of development, did the government trample on human rights? Of course it did. Did people suffer under the hardships of having thousands of men employed abroad for 25 years, from low wages here when there was any work to be had, from poor living conditions and from all of the political and social ills and injustice that attend dictatorships? Of course they did. Unlike in other countries, however, the result was not a nation sapped of its wealth by a string of greedy strongmen, but a nation soon to become the 12th largest economy in the world.
It is Sociology 101 that a nation’s economic development always outpaces social change. Korea is no exception, and today we live with much of the baggage of human failing that the nation accumulated on its journey to its current status, baggage that it will take at least a generation to purge from the system. That corporations in Korea have always made massive contributions to the political process has never been a secret. For its part, the government was never averse to stepping in and making whatever changes were necessary in corporations, including splitting them up or merging them, to advance government policy. Under this managed system, companies came and went, while Korea grew. There was no Securities and Exchange Commission, no National Labor Relations Board, no anti-trust law or Department of Justice to ensure fair play and orderly development. It was rough and tumble and often not nice. As Korea emerged from dictatorship and sought to put democracy in place, the players did not change. They brought with them their old ways, creating something of a plated rather than a sterling democracy.
The funding for political parties had to come from somewhere. The obvious source was the corporations, though they had hardly volunteered for this role. The funding was demanded of them by the same government that had supported them with loans, suppressed competition and developed export markets.
Call it extortion. Political thinking, naive as it was, held that it was not only necessary but also right. Political parties sent their bagmen around to the corporations and told each one what its contribution to the new democracy would be. These men came with the color of authority and always wielded the might of a vindictive power, should a company refuse. Their toolbox was filled with remedies to combat the evils of an uncooperative corporation, including government audits of the company, its executives and their families and other major shareholders; harassment of employees and strife in labor relations.
Companies had no choice. They complained, they prevaricated, they negotiated - but in the end they paid. They were not out to subvert the democratic process. They were “buying insurance,” as the mob calls it.
Given this past, what is a fair resolution and one that would establish democracy and capitalism as twin pillars supporting the development of the nation in the 21st century?
Past attempts to come to grips with corruption in government have gone after the most egregious symptoms rather than the root evil. An approach has to be implemented that takes into account the bigger picture. It should cover only the most recent 10-year period. Anything before that is water down the Han.
First, all parties should be required to come forward with an accounting of their participation. If they accumulated wealth because of the funding - call it “sponsorship” of Korea’s introduction to democracy - they should give that wealth to the state. They should not be prosecuted for it unless they failed to disclose it. This will not be easy because in Korean culture it is difficult for a person to say, “I did wrong.” But without it, the situation will not change.
Second, corporations must give an accounting of amounts paid, to whom and by whom and on what occasion. The corporations here are the aggrieved parties, so there should be no prosecution of either corporations or individuals. Corporate officers who have been convicted of crimes and imprisoned must be pardoned. These men, and others who have gone before, built the nation and they have a lot to contribute to its future growth. If there is no prosecution, there is no need for anyone to withhold information in the accounting, other than the cultural aversion to accepting responsibility for moral laxity.
Third, as an urgent matter, the nation must come up with a way to fund political parties and lawful political activities so that no party has to resort to past tactics to finance the future of democracy. This funding needs to be adequate so that it does not require “supplements.”
Other nations, such as South Africa, have done exactly that when faced with a past that they wanted to put behind them. Only in this way will the wounds of history heal.
President Roh knows this and deserves everyone’s support in this effort, whether they agree with his politics or not. This is not a political issue. It is an issue of survival. If it is mishandled, Korea will never mature politically, will not emerge from the shadows of its past, and twenty years from now we and Korea will all be the worse for it.
* The writer is senior adviser to the chairman of YBM/Sisa, the largest publisher and importer of English language materials in Korea. The views expressed are his own.
by Steven A. Stupak