A tragic regression

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A tragic regression

 Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor and vice president of the JoongAng Ilbo.


The script for “Squid Game,” a Netflix original series, was completed in 2008, but it took years to be filmed because producers considered it strange and odd. Director Hwang Dong-hyuk, who wrote and directed the show, told the JoongAng Ilbo in a recent interview, “In just 10 years, we are living in a world as cruel as this survival drama. I feel sad.” “Squid Game” is a gloomy story of a “winner-takes-all” world.

The key players in the Daejang-dong land development scandal all wanted to get rich quick. They pocketed 800 billion won ($674 million) that was supposed to be paid to the original residents of the site in Seongnam city, Gyeonggi, and the tenants. A former Supreme Court justice, prosecutor general, independent counsel and senior presidential secretary for civil affairs all joined hands through a web of personal relationships.

In his 1995 book “Trust,” Francis Fukuyama, a professor at Stanford University, wrote that trust reduces transaction costs and maximizes economic efficiency. He argued that trust — a pillar of an economy — is built through culture in line with Max Weber, who presented a theory in which culture fosters economy, as opposed to Karl Marx, who believed that economy creates culture.

Fukuyama saw Korea as a low-trust country that lacks social capital. About one generation later, the trust level in Korea has not changed. The Daejang-dong scandal, led by a cartel of powerful people’s private relationships — not by a transparent public system — is living proof.

Kim Man-bae — a former journalist and the owner of Hwacheon Daeyu, an asset management company at the center of the scandal — recruited elite lawyers as advisors and called them “my brothers.” When the rule of keeping the appropriate distance in a relationship is broken, the two sides will act not on ethics but based on their fraternity. When the boundary between the watchmen and those being watched is blurred, the public interest suffers. This is why the weak who don’t have money and power are jumping into “Squid Game” as in the drama.

In 2019, Supreme Court Justice Kwon Soon-il played a leading role in acquitting Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung in his election law violation trial. Kim, the owner of the asset management company, visited Justice Kwon’s office eight times before and after Lee’s trial. Kim, then, recruited Kwon as an advisor of Hwacheon Daeyu and paid 15 million won monthly. That constitutes a typical case of a fraternity-based connections.

Kim’s elder sister purchased a house owned by former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl’s father for the price of 1.9 billion won. At that time, Yoon was waiting for a confirmation hearing after being nominated as prosecutor general. Although they all claimed innocence, the public will not be fooled anymore.

The son of Rep. Kwak Sang-do, who served as the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, said, “I was just a pawn in the Squid Game.” He had worked at Hwacheon Daeyu for six years thanks to his father and received a whopping 5 billion won in severance pay. Such a person has no right to call himself a “pawn” in any kind of game. He allowed his integrity to be bought.

Gyeonggi Gov. Lee, a leading presidential candidate for the ruling Democratic Party (DP), admitted that he designed the development project when he was mayor of Seongnam city. “It was a great example of a public project which raked in 550.3 billion won in profit for Seongnam citizens,” Lee said. But the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, a powerful civic group, branded it a “corrupt development project in which the local government and builders formed a dirty relationship to give profit to builders.”

The police and the prosecution must get to the bottom of the alleged collusion between Yoo Dong-gyu, former acting president of the Seongnam Development Corporation, and Hwacheon Daeyu.

Could the law enforcement agencies complete the investigation? Although the Financial Intelligence Unit handed over information on suspicious money flows of Hwacheon Daeyu to the police in May, the police wasted five months before summoning Kim. “They have spent hundreds of billions of won in bribes. How can this investigation be successful? I am scared of this situation,” said the founding CEO of a consortium of developers for the housing project. If the police and the prosecution try to dismiss the suspicions, the people will hardly accept it.

A presidential election decides the future of a country. It is different from the leadership election in Japan, where a politician who inherited power from his father is made prime minister based on partisan interests. That’s how Korea became a more advanced democracy than Japan.

And yet, the presidential election on March 9 will be decided by the outcomes of the investigations by the prosecution and the police into the growing suspicions over top presidential candidates — Lee’s land development scandal and Yoon’s alleged abuse of power. This is a tragic regression of Korea’s democracy.
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