Corruption in Korea – A Never Ending Story?

By Markus Pohlmann and Jaok Kwon-Hein

On 10 March 2017, the Constitutional Court of Korea upheld a parliamentary vote to impeach President Park Geun-hye over a corruption and cronyism scandal. The first female president in South Korean history as well as the first daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee (1962-1979) has become the first democratically elected Korean president to be forced from office. Park Geun-hye won great victories at the presidential election in 2012 strongly supported by the lingering nostalgia for her father who successfully achieved the unprecedented economic development in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, the accumulative images created by her role as the de facto first lady after the assassination of her beloved mother in 1974 as well as a child who had to tragically experience a bloodshed of her father by the Korean CIA in 1979 contributed to the victory of her presidential campaign.

Lurking in the background of the corruption scandal is Choi Soon-sil, a confidante of Park Geun-hye, who has been accused of fraud, coercion and abuse of power using the connection to Park in extorting large sums from Chaebol in the name of donation through two non-profit organizations which she set up. Park Geun-hye was accused of soliciting bribes from Chaebol in order to support the illegal behaviour of her friend. In particular, Samsung, the country’s largest conglomerate, was deeply embroiled in the bribery scandal by donating millions. To respond in kind, the government backed a merger of two Samsung affiliates in 2015. It was considered as a vital procedure to support the succession of the control over “Samsung Empire” Since the Samsung group Chairman Lee Kun-hee was delivered to the medical Centre because of heart attack in 2014, Samsung was under pressure that they should hand over the crown to his only son, Lee Jae-yong.

Corruption Drama à la Shakespeare

Source: wikimedia commons

The underlying constellation resembles one of Shakespeare’s royal dramas. The mother of Park Geun-hye fell victim to an assassination that actually targeting her husband, Park Chung-hee. The founder of a dubious pseudo-Christian sect (the Church of Eternal Life) took the opportunity of the mother’s early death – much to the father’s displeasure – to influence her daughter. When the father of the future South Korean President was murdered, the daughter of the illustrious sect founder, Choi Soon-sil, also joined the orphan’s company. However, the two were presumably already in contact with each other even before the murder. When this orphan became South Korea’s first female president many years later, Choi Soon-sil might have not only maintained a spiritual influence on her but at the same time cashed out in a roundabout way, so the accusation goes, many millions in bribes. In the meantime, the daughter of Choi Soon-sil, who is also behind bars, continued her career as a dressage competitor, among other things, in Germany, funded by foundations that were also capitalized by Samsung. The whole drama has not only took the very active civil society movements in South Korea to the street, led to a vote of mistrust and the resignation of the president, but also to the arrest of all parties involved as well as to early elections, which will take place on May 9, 2017.

A Culture of Give and Take

South Korea is a relatively young democracy with a significant culture of giving and taking, personal trust and a strongly defining socialization in school classes and educational institutions. Families and regional affiliation are still important pillars of South Korean self-understanding. However, many cultural rules of giving and taking are today subject to modern corporate and regulatory compliance rules as well as strict anti-corruption laws. South Korea is also vigorous in combating corruption. The only thing one can see is that all the presidents – with the exception of Park Chung-hee (1962-1979), who was assassinated in 1979 – were under investigation for corruption and fraud during or after their terms of office. Before the current charges against Park Geun-hye, the former military dictator Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1988) and the first democratically elected President Roh Tae-woo (1988-1993) were sentenced to long prison terms, even though they were later granted amnesty. Also imprisoned for corruption were the sons of President Kim Young-sam (1993-1998) and President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003). And President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) took his own life during corruption investigations against his wife, his son and his brother. Likewise, the presidents of South Korea’s big corporate groups often end up in jail as a result of bribery and fraud, even if they are pardoned shortly afterwards. President Lee Myung-bak for example, who was in office from February 2008 to February 2013 and whose brother also received a two-year imprisonment for corruption, granted amnesty to 55 businessmen who were for the most part convicted of corruption (See the study by Thomas Kalinowski 2016).

This leads to a typically South Korean dynamic among persistent bribery and fraud, efficient prosecution and severe condemnation thereof, as well as the regular pardon of the economic and political elites. The background music is provided by the active civil society movements as well as the social media, which repeatedly disavow the economic and political elites without being able to fundamentally change the system behind it. The dramaturgy at the theater of corruption in South Korea and the underlying system have not changed fundamentally for years.

The Many Facets of the Drama


What is the cause for this? We would like to highlight three key factors among the many explanatory factors. First of all, South Korea is known for its closed elite system. On the one hand, the clan structures of the big business conglomerates play a major role. On the other hand, the key element here is the elite universities. 72 percent of the top 100 CEOs of South Korean leading industrial companies in 2015 have a degree from the top 5 universities (See also the study by Pohlmann / Lim 2014). Most government ministers over the past 20 years have also graduated from these universities. Very often, they share the same social background of the upper class. Despite the fact that entrance exams are accessible to everyone, access to the elite universities is socially highly selective. The reason is that performances in the entrance examinations very much depend on whether you have attended the right (sometimes very expensive) schools, have invested enough money in tutoring and remunerated teachers for additional care. These universities, such as the Seoul National University, are therefore an important recruitment base for the economic and political elites and create important social interdependencies that are later on perpetuated through everyday giving and taking. Secondly, these networks culminated in Seoul, a metropolis of 14 million people, where more than a quarter of South Korea’s entire population lives. Who wants to become part of the South Korean power elite, has to move there. Although Seoul is a big city, the centres of power are easy to grasp. Here the social circles of the economic and political elites are constantly and inevitably overlapping. Thirdly, the political system, with frequent political changes, weak parties and increasing election costs that the candidates usually have to finance themselves, is also responsible. This has increased the susceptibility to corruption, illegal campaign finance and the influence of companies and business people (See also Croissant 2013).

Business as Usual in South Korea?

Thus, did nothing really change in South Korea? We do not think we can end up with it. The close relationship in political, military and partly economic terms with the USA has left its mark. This applies not only to the more liberal orientation of the state and the reduction of all-too-close links between economy and politics, but also to the imitation of effective strategies in the fight against corruption. And the increasing protests of the younger people show at least that this struggle now has even more support. Perhaps this can help lay the ground for the numerous impulses for change in the economic and political system, despite the closeness of the elite system, the clan structures of big corporate groups and the weaknesses of the party system.



Croissant, Aurel (2013): Das politische System Südkoreas. In: Derichs, Claudia und Heberer, Thomas (Hrsg.): Die politischen Systeme Ostasiens. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, S. 355-429.

Thomas Kalinowski (2016): Trends and mechanisms of corruption in South Korea, in: The Pacific Review, 29:4, 625-645.

Markus Pohlmann, Lim, Hyun-Chin (2014): A New „Spirit“ of Capitalism? – Globalization and its Impact on the Diffusion of Neoliberal Management Thinking in Germany and the East Asian Economies, in: Development and Society, Vol. 43, No. 1, p. 1-32.

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Markus Pohlmann (2017, 5. Mai). Corruption in Korea – A Never Ending Story? Organizational Crime Stories. Abgerufen am 19. April 2024, von