Pure political theater

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Pure political theater

There was a longstanding military strategy in ancient China: defeat the enemy using another enemy. Enemies are enemies. One was bad and the other worse. China would provoke the bad to go to war with the worse. It wouldn’t matter if both were destroyed. But the worse must go down first because if it survived, it could come back and retaliate against China. But the bad must not triumph too much because it could grow confident enough to come after China.

The parliamentary questioning season is upon us. In the eyes of the public, it is a war between two unpopular rivals: lawmakers against the chaebol owners. It is hard to tell who is worse. Some would say it is the chaebol. But legislators pose formidable competition in terms of venality. Lawmakers are randomly hauling in chaebol owners for questioning. The list of owners and family members of corporate empires is long for each standing committee.

Chaebol families generate one scandal after another: Korean Air’s notorious “nut rage” incident, Samsung’s top hospital becoming Ground Zero in the spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome and a public power struggle between siblings at Lotte. However intense the fight may be, the public is merely contemptuous. Neither side has any fans to cheer it on. And the public knows from the start the ranting and raving is all for show. The public just hopes the two will not get together in any way, because that would probably ruin the country.

There are different motives behind lawmakers’ summoning of CEOs and chairmen of conglomerates. As soon as the office of a lawmaker calls the secretariat of a CEO requesting his or her presence at a parliamentary hearing, an envoy from the business group arrives on the doorstep inquiring what the company can do for the lawmaker. For chaebol that have done something truly wrong, paying off lawmakers is a cheap and easy route to take. It would cost much more to that owning family if the company had to restructure itself, become more transparent in its management, or make contributions to society. The parliamentary probe therefore serves as a win-win piece of theater and keeps the two sides out of any real wrestling ring. The repertoires and targets differ slightly, but the ritual remains the same every year. The chaebol owners are summoned and publicly humiliated, or so the public is supposed to believe.

This year the list has gotten particularly long. The National Assembly’s Trade, Industry and Energy Committee called over 150 businessmen to the witness stand. Lotte is wanted by six different legislative standing committees. Lotte has put off all management decisions until the parliamentary questioning session ends. Executives make daily calls to the lawmakers’ office building from dawn to late into the night. They can hardly get any sleep. They must study and please not only the lawmakers, but all their aides and secretaries. Their aim is to reduce the time their CEOs spend on the witness stand. The National Assembly is swarming with corporate representatives. One must wait twice or thrice longer than usual to receive a pass to enter the building. Group officials say this is all part of the procedure. The more a company pays attention and shows sincerity, the less grilling its CEO will get.

How long do we have to tolerate this mendacious and outdated tradition? Legislators must change first. They must avoid the temptation to flex their illusory muscles. They don’t get any stronger by keeping CEOs waiting for hours and using all their time at the microphone hollering and cutting them off without hearing their responses. Chaebol owners must also change. They should not take their anger out on their secretaries for making them sit through questioning for several hours while other tycoons are released after a few minutes. If they have anything to be ashamed of, they could apologize directly to the public. That is much nobler than kowtowing to lawmakers. A CEO should not lose face for the sake of the reputation of his company and employees. He should have a little more self-esteem.

The Korean economy is sinking deeper into the abyss. The climate on both the domestic and external fronts is getting worse. Korea Inc. cannot sail on without truly bold leadership. But the National Assembly stomps on our corporate leadership for two months every year. It should only summon corporate heads when it has due cause. The chaebol leaders, meanwhile, should apologize on their own for any wrongdoings and provide new visions for their companies. Only then does the Korean economy have some hope.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 3, Page 34

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yi Jung-jae

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