A day’s work for 500 million won?

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A day’s work for 500 million won?

A former corporate kingpin who used to run the largest business group in Gwangju and South Jeolla before the conglomerate fell apart in 2010 returned to Korea over the weekend to comply with a local court order to work off his massive fines. The former chairman fled to New Zealand to dodge hefty fines after he was convicted of embezzlement and tax evasion.

But what’s extraordinary about the situation is that Huh Jae-ho, former chairman of the now-disbanded Daeju Group, is deducted 500 million won ($463,671) in fines for a day’s labor at the prison.

Under a grace period over the weekend, he has already had 1 billion won deducted for two days in prison, without doing anything. Because he is advanced in years - Huh is 72 - he will also be given physically undemanding work, which is hardly worth 500 million won.

Huh was indicted in 2007 for evading 50 billion won in corporate taxes and embezzling corporate funds worth 10 billion won. He left the country during the second trial in 2010. In 2011, the Supreme Court delivered its final ruling, sentencing him to two years and six months in jail, as well as an additional fine of 25.4 billion won.

The lower appellate court gave Huh the option to work off his fine, setting the value at 500 million won for a day’s work. Huh returned home and headed straight to prison to pay off his dues. It will only take him 50 days to pay off the full 25.4 billion won fine.

Under Korean criminal law, terms at the prison labor house are set anywhere between one day and three years. It is up to the individual court to set the cost of labor. For common inmates, a day’s work is set between 50,000 won and 100,000 won. But strangely, during the second trial, the court in Gwangju came up with a historic figure for a day’s labor, worth 5,000 to 10,000 times the normal rate.

The decision naturally raised uproar over favoritism toward a regional business tycoon who wielded enormous power in Gwangju. The ruling was also delivered by a judge whose entire bench career had been limited to Gwangju.

But the case is no local affair, and it has the potential to damage the reputation of the judiciary branch. Even if judiciary decisions are up to the court judge, they must be within the realm of common sense and comprehension. To prevent similar cases, the judiciary should come up with general guidelines on labor cost and sentence terms.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 25, Page 30

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