Giving activism a bad name

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Giving activism a bad name

Jang Hwa-sik, CEO of Spec Watch, a civic watchdog for speculative foreign investment in Korea, was arrested Thursday on charges of receiving a whopping 800 million won ($733,200) in bribes from Yoo Hoe-won, the head of Lone Star Korea. Jang was the biggest critic of Lone Star’s investment in Korea Exchange Bank. But after getting the money from Yoo, he sent a petition to the Supreme Court pleading for lenient treatment of Yoo in a securities manipulation case.

Civic groups monitor the government and corporate sector on behalf of the public. If they want to carry out their mission successfully, they must act transparently. But we often see cases of corruption involving the representatives of civic groups.

For instance, Choi Yul, an icon of the environmental movement in Korea, was sentenced to one year in prison by the Supreme Court on charges of receiving 130 million won in bribes from a real estate developer. Choi’s claim that he borrowed the money from the developer was not believed. The court concluded that the money could not have been lent to Choi purely for business purposes as he received it in cash from the developer and called on the Gyeonggi governor and other officials to help the real estate developer establish an industrial compound in the region.

Jang’s case appears to be corruption committed on an individual level. But the group first accused Lone Star Korea of engaging in speculative investment in Korea. If the civic group was not aware of Jang’s actions, that’s a serious problem. If it condoned them, that’s a bigger problem.

Jang is a leader with political ambition. He ran for the National Assembly as a candidate of the Democratic Labor Party and then became a member of the New Politics Committee led by Ahn Cheol-soo. If someone like him wants to become a lawmaker or a government official, his or her credibility must be earned.

Civic groups enjoyed their heyday under the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Their members often joined committees and were appointed as ministers or advisors to the government. At the 2005 World Forum on Government Innovation in Seoul, Peter Eigen, founder and chairman of Transparency International, a non-governmental organization promoting transparency and accountability in international development, underscored that civic groups must be clean if a country is to be transparent. As he stressed, Korean civic groups must be armed with transparency in decision-making, expertise and ethics to represent the public at large.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 6, Page 30

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