[Viewpoint] Corruption is a culture, not a manAbout 10 years ago, the highest-ranking prosecutors in the Busan area gathered for dinner at a restaurant in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang owned by Taekwang Industrial Chairman Park Yeon-cha. During the dinner, Park sat right next to the chief of the High Public Prosecutor’s Office, the highest-ranking official there. Suddenly, the air was charged with tension. Prosecutors take rank very seriously, and the seating order is usually in accordance with one’s position. Some complained, “Do we have two chiefs at the Busan High Public Prosecutor’s Office?”
In an attempt to break the ice, Park prepared a concoction of beer and hard liquor commonly known as a “bomb” and passed it around the table. When drinking this “bomb,” the etiquette is that the one who made the concoction drinks a shot first before passing it around. The prosecutors have a very strict drinking culture and respect this rule. However, Park started to pass around glasses without having one himself. Naturally, a prosecutor who was offered a glass turned it down and advised Park to drink first. Yet Park insisted the other members of the table drink and said, “There is no rule when it comes to drinking.” The furious prosecutor called him a drug addict. Another rebuked him as well, but the chairman did not back down.
The next day, Chun Sin-il , the president of Sejung Namo Tour called the prosecutor. Chun and the prosecutor are both alumni of Korea University. Chun asked the prosecutors to reconcile with Park. Humiliated in front of his employees, Park was so furious he said he was going to quit his business and become a monk. After several requests, the prosecutor reluctantly called Park. Another prosecutor was asked to make up with Park by chief prosecutor Lee Jong-chan.
Now that 10 years have passed, the two prosecutors who argued with Park Yeon-cha are retired from high public positions. Park is now being investigated by prosecutors. Chun Sin-il is a close friend of President Lee Myung-bak and is considered an influential figure in the ruling party. Chief prosecutor Lee Jong-chan served as the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs under the Lee Myung-bak administration. When Park was being audited last summer, Chun and Lee reportedly had a meeting to settle the situation. Lee was criticized for having established a law office with money borrowed from Park through his brother. Chun served as an outside director for Park’s company until recently. They are all intertwined with one another in the power structure.
At the dinner table, Park was humiliated when he was called a drug addict. In 1990, he was arrested for substance use and involvement in prostitution with entertainers. The incident must have made him realize the importance of the power of prosecutors. Since then, Park has been known to make efforts to be friends with high-ranking prosecutors. To help his businesses, he also maintained a close relationship with tax officials, notably Roh Geon-pyeong at the Busan Regional Tax Office.
Some call Park a genius in power management. He maintains a connection with any sector with power. In all five administrations since the late 1980s, he has kept close relationships with both the ruling and opposition parties.
His strategy was two- pronged. First, he gives an impression that he does not want anything in return. Instead of acting like a businessman working for his interests, he emphasizes that he is a “friend” who shares one’s political cause. He starts making friends early on and maintains the relationship beyond retirement. Secondly, he gladly donates enormous amounts of money and so gets a reputation as a generous and loyal supporter.
However, the image the projects is nothing but an illusion. With help from Roh Geon-pyeong, he gained 32 billion won in the course of acquiring Hu-Chems from the Agricultural Cooperative. Giving 500 million won to a political candidate at the request of Roh Geon-pyeong was just small change compared to the gains he enjoyed. Now, he is naming the politicians who have taken bribes from him to prosecutors in order to save himself and his family. In the interrogation sessions, he is reportedly pushing names at the prosecutors aggressively.
So many powerful men in Korea have been played by Park Yeon-cha. He is today’s symbol of corrupt power. Unless those in power change, we would see another Park Yeon-cha and another Jeong Tae-su, the former Hanbo Group chairman arrested for bribery during the Kim Young-sam administration, at any time.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Oh Byung-sang