In South Korea, it feels like a scandal a day

Times Staff Writer

In what has become South Korea’s autumn of scandal, it sometimes seems no one is immune from accusations of impropriety.

The top executives at Samsung, the country’s biggest company, are alleged to have created a bribery network whose tentacles snared politicians and prosecutors, professors and journalists. The front-runner for president is campaigning beneath the dagger of possible fraud charges. Elite schools are reeling under allegations of fixed entrance exams.

And from the upper echelons of the art world to Buddhist temples, South Korean personalities are being ignominiously exposed for having faked their academic credentials to get ahead. If there was a moment that illustrated the pervasiveness of the scandals now roiling South Korea, it came with the indictment this month of Ahn Yoo-jin, accused by prosecutors of inflating her educational record in order to land a teaching job at a college.

Ahn is a professional belly dancer.

“Competition for survival has become ruthless and morality disregarded,” says Kim Mun-cho, a Korea University sociologist. “In the competition to be ahead of others, people resort to any means available, resulting in corruption.”

Some blame the tendency to shave corners on a cutthroat mentality that developed in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which shook Koreans’ faith in an ever-expanding economy. Others contend that South Korea has never shaken off the mutual back-scratching culture of a small society, where the establishment has tight personal connections forged by blood, school or regional ties.


And some suggest that Korean society simply has an unhealthy obsession with success. “Living an ordinary life is not regarded as being successful, and staying still economically is seen as an unbearable retrogression,” Kim says. “Korean society demands overachievement.”

Whatever the reason, Koreans picking up a newspaper or turning on TV news these days are confronted with seemingly endless stories of bribery and cheating, influence peddling and corruption.

Scandals have always been a hallmark of South Korea’s presidential elections, and the campaign that officially began this week for the Dec. 19 vote is no exception. A former business partner of Lee Myun-bak, the front-runner, was extradited to South Korea this month from Los Angeles, amid speculation he would incriminate the candidate in the alleged money laundering and stock manipulation that brought down their financial services company. Prosecutors are expected to decide next week whether to take action.

Meanwhile, the country’s top official at the National Tax Service is under arrest on charges that he took $66,000 in cash from one of his deputies as part of a kickback scheme. And a Seoul court is hearing evidence against Byeon Yang-kyoon, President Roh Moo-hyun’s former top policy advisor. Byeon is accused of using his influence to have a female friend hired at a Buddhist university as a professor of Western art history. He has argued that he did not know she had apparently faked her university credentials.

The woman, Shin Jeong-ah, was curator of a Seoul museum and co-director of the Gwangju Biennale, the country’s premier art event. Now she has been indicted for allegedly enhancing her academic record, including claiming a nonexistent doctorate from Yale University.

The notoriety of Shin’s alleged academic fictions during the summer triggered a deluge of similar embarrassing confessions. Among those accused of lying about their educational qualifications are a highly successful Buddhist monk, a prominent architect, a comic book artist, and belly dancer Ahn, whose television appearances, stage performances and chain of schools called Belly Korea had made her a minor celebrity.

“Education is the top priority in South Korea; it gives a person a sense of pride,” says Choi Hyang-ok, an administrator at one of Belly Korea’s schools, where she says the prevailing mood is that Ahn was a victim of jealous rivals. “That’s why many people wonder, ‘Should I exaggerate my credentials if I can?’ ”

Ahn’s resume transgressions are small stuff, however, next to the allegations of comprehensive corruption made against the Samsung Group, a corporate behemoth with interests ranging from electronics to construction and shipbuilding.

According to the company’s former top lawyer for seven years until 2004, Samsung has crafted a network of bribery that extends to the judiciary, government tax and finance officials, academia and the media. The attorney, Kim Yong-chol, described a system in which cash was handed over in briefcases, or disguised to look like books or CD cases.

Shielding himself behind a respected organization of Roman Catholic priests, Kim told a nationally televised news conference from a Seoul church that even the country’s top prosecutors were on Samsung’s payroll. The list included the government’s nominee for chief prosecutor and the head of the national commission looking into corruption, he said.

All have denied the charges, with Samsung denouncing Kim’s allegations as “malicious.”

But the company’s problems deepened when a former anti-corruption advisor to President Roh came forward to say he had been a target of a Samsung bribe. Lee Yong-chul said that a Samsung executive tried to bribe him in 2004, the roughly $5,000 in cash offered in a package disguised to look like a book. Lee said he refused the money.

Last week, the South Korean parliament passed a bill calling on Roh to appoint an independent investigator to look into the allegations against Samsung. Roh’s critics worried he might veto the measure, fearing that a wide-ranging investigation of Samsung could reveal unseemly financial links between the company and his own 2002 campaign for president. But this week he bowed to public pressure and accepted the appointment of the prosecutor.

“I think the bill has many problems both legally and politically,” Roh said at a news conference in Seoul, denying that he accepted “congratulatory money” from Samsung. But he said he did not have the political support to veto the bill and had “decided people want to know the truth of the allegations implicating the nation’s largest conglomerate.”

Few South Koreans seemed overly shocked that one of the country’s mammoth business conglomerates -- known as chaebols -- would try to bribe public officials or woo allies in the media with cash and gifts. South Korea’s chaebols were built on intimate ties with military governments of the 1960s and have long records of being tainted by corruption. In February, Chung Mong-koo, chairman of Hyundai Motor Co., was convicted of embezzling more than $100 million from the company to create a slush fund that prosecutors said was used for bribery.

Chung received a three-year prison term, but his sentence was commuted to community service when the court ruled that his incarceration would have too detrimental an impact on the South Korean economy.

What instead has surprised people is the increasing willingness of whistle-blowers to step forward with detailed allegations against the most powerful people in South Korean society.

“It’s the first initiative that’s difficult to make,” says Father Kim In-kook of the Catholic Priests’ Assn. for Justice, an organization respected for its role in opposing the authoritarianism of dictator Park Chung-hee in the 1970s. The priest says whistle-blower Kim Yong-chol came to the church group for protection after other organizations shied away from taking on Samsung.

“There are many people who suffered because of Samsung’s corruption and injustice and who could not speak out because they felt weak as an individual,” Father Kim says. “Now that two people have come out with courage, others might feel encouraged to give witness and make a better society.”

Some observers see a sign of evolution in the scandals’ airing.

“Most people believed or suspected this sort of thing was always going on and took it for granted,” says Lee Ji-soo of the Center for Good Corporate Governance in Seoul. “The difference this time is that someone has come forward to speak out against it, and there are more people prepared to say that this is not acceptable.

“There is a generational divide in Korea,” Lee says. “And the younger generation is saying that Korea can’t move forward unless we overcome that old way of thinking to become a more transparent society.”


Times staff writer Jinna Park contributed to this report.