Probes or witchhunts?

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Probes or witchhunts?

The prosecution’s probe of corporate irregularities has accelerated and spread to new businesses. It gained traction after a go-ahead from Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo, who last week declared “a war against corruption.” Prosecutors raided units of steelmaking giant Posco Group on suspicion of poor management and the creation of slush funds. They moved onto Keangnam Enterprises and its questionable relationship with state-owned Korea National Oil Corporation on overseas resources exploration projects. Shinsegae Group is under investigation for slush funds, Dongbu Group for bequeathment issues and SK Engineering and Construction over alleged bid collusion. Lotte Shopping also joined the list for suspicious money transfers. A new chaebol facing investigation from the prosecution appears in the papers almost every day.

The prosecution has received full blessings from on high. President Park Geun-hye urged prosecutors to discover and uproot “the roots of corruption” undermining the national economy. Prime Minister Lee encouraged them not to waver no matter what. Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-an said the prosecution should be allowed to do their job, insisting the investigations were without political motivation.

This country must do away with shady deals, collusion and tax evasion to hone our overall competitiveness. Discoveries over the last year or so underscored that the practices of bribery and lobbying are rampant in military and public procurements, overseas deals using public money and the general business-politics relationship. Posco stashed away millions of dollars in slush funds through overseas and domestic affiliates. The executives behind such illicit activities must be punished if the group’s competitiveness was impaired by them. It’s no secret that Korea’s corporate brands have benefited from state patronage after contributing funds to politicians. Keangnam, through its chairman’s close ties with former President Lee Myung-bak, received multibillion-won loans at cheap rates and wasted them on poor resources investments or embezzled them for personal use. The shameful tradition must be done away for good.

But the motive behind the ongoing campaign is being questioned because it looks orchestrated. All past governments under Presidents Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak have used the prosecution for their political purposes. Prosecutors will not have public support if they are playing politics. Prosecutors should act fast to minimize damage to business sentiment and make sure they are not suspected of playing politics.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 20, Page 30.
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