[Letter to the editor]Money talks

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[Letter to the editor]Money talks

The more things change the more things stay the same.
What do the releases of Kim Seung-youn and Chung Mong-koo, respectively chairmen of Hanwha and Hyundai business groups, tell us about the state of the Korean justice system?
Kim was recently at the center of one of Korea’s most infamous criminal cases, duly convicted of assault and sent to prison for 18 months after admitting to undertaking a revenge attack on some men who had attacked his son. His sentence was suspended on appeal. Meanwhile Chung also had his substantial prison sentence for a corruption conviction suspended on appeal. Why?
We are right to ask. Looking at the alternative sentences that the appeals judges have handed down in these cases, we can see that Kim is required to do 18 months of community service while Chung has been told to do similar service while also donating huge amounts of Hyundai’s money to a slew of community projects. That is all. Nothing more.
The judges in these cases cited a number of frankly extraordinary reasons for so substantially weakening the sentences. First among these is that Kim, in effect, only did what any father would do. This, needless to say, is absolute nonsense.
Fathers have a natural tendency to feel protective of their children, and if Kim had brought the full weight of the law crashing down on his son’s assailants that would have been applauded by us all.
However, he did no such thing. He brought an iron bar crashing down on them in a deserted area of southern Seoul instead. In short, he did what he thought he could get away with doing.
That in the first place he did not get away with it, and was sentenced to a prison term for it -- a welcome surprise to everyone. That he should now walk free is depressingly unsurprising.
In the case of Chung, he was convicted of large-scale embezzlement and sentenced to three years in prison.
The rationale for suspending that sentence last week was that the impact of such imprisonment might have a serious negative effect on the Korean economy, as Hyundai is one of its largest contributing parts. Ignoring the damage that an 840-billion-won ($903.8-million) donation to the Korean community could also do to Hyundai’s bottom line, we must wonder whether Chung is so crucial to the day to day success of Hyundai that he can’t be sacrificed for even a year? If so, I fear for the long-term viability of the Hyundai Corporation. Frankly, of course, this rationale is as dubious as that in the Kim case.
It is an inconvenient truth for the Korean government to swallow, but it seems that in judicial terms money still talks much louder than fairness or equality. Both these men performed criminal acts, and both these men deserve to be punished according to the laws of the land.
Both men did things that very few of us could hope, or would wish, to get away with, and the “community service” and “donations to the community” angle are clearly sops to keep ordinary Koreans quiet as these criminals walk free from jail.
It was extraordinarily short-sighted of the judges in both cases. What Korea needs right now are not Chung and Kim at the helms of their respective empires; instead it needs a good injection of faith in its business environment and its judicial system.
There is a very good reason why Korea ranked 42nd in the 2006 Transparency International corruption index, well behind such enlightened economies as Macao (26th) and Taiwan (35th). These recent court decisions just serve to reinforce the point.
On Wednesday the Financial Times noted that, “The Korean courts appear to believe that it is in the national interest to have these industrial giants continue to run their publicly listed companies, regardless of what they might get up to behind the scenes...
“Wouldn’t the national interest be better served by business leaders who behave themselves and a legal system that treats all citizens equally?”
Chris Green, Seoul
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