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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

South Korea’s President: Emblematic of a Culture of Corruption

Mired in corruption, President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea reflected on the matter on television in July 2012. “The more I think about it, the more it crushes my heart,” he said. “But whom can I blame now? It’s all because of my negligence . . . . I bow before the people in apology.” He had offered a similar apology the previous January during his New Year’s speech. Although Kim himself was not as of July implicated, three relatives, four senior staff, and several former senior officials in the cabinet and government-run companies had been indicted or convicted.

According to the New York Times, “The president’s brother, a former lawmaker, has been charged with accepting bribes from two bankers. Prosecutors said the bankers asked him to help prevent regulators from shutting down their banks. The bankers have been charged with embezzlement and bribery, and their banks’ operations have been suspended.” Moreover, Kim was just the latest in a series of South Korean presidents politically damaged by corruption scandals. It would appear that personal profiting from one’s governmental (or business) position was at the very least a part of the South Korean culture, if not tacitly accepted in government circles.

In my albeit rather limited association with South Korean business, I have found the organizational culture to be extremely hierarchical in the sense that officials at the top have near carte-blanche (i.e., near absolute) power from the perspective of their subordinates. Additionally, the underlings tend to cover up any mistakes or failures from their bosses, whose world is thus held as though in the clouds. In such a context, corruption can be rife.

It should be noted that the extreme psychological distance in the organizational world in South Korea is not without a basis in fact. The mentality of an employee at a customer service call center is oceans away from that of even a mid-level manager, who in turn can be distinguished from an organizational leader. Often times, only the latter has the maturity to relegate the red tape by prioritizing common sense and even just that which is natural in human-to-human interaction. It is not uncommon, for instance, for people used to a certain height to instinctively sense and relegate the gate-keeping games of the herd. I suspect that in South Korea, the latter know they are eons away from their superiors. The latter can use this natural distance to their own advantage in covering up bribery and kick-backs. To this extent, the distance assumed by the underlings is unjustified, even if on a general mentality basis it is fully natural (and justified).

Therefore, even though the corruption in South Korean government and business is hardly justified from an ethical standpoint, a Nietzschean would quickly point out that distance is natural, even necessary, for the strong such that they not become infected by the narrowness of the herd. In the West, the organizational creature can be rather insistent that its mentality must be binding even on those above. In South Korean culture, by contrast, a lower mentality may have a better sense of its place, and thus of the inherently limited nature of its reach. That is to say, the presumptuousness of the herd animal is checked, whereas it roams like an undisciplined child in the West. The question regarding South Korea is thus how corruption may be checked without tossing the baby out with the bathwater. 


Choe Sang-Hun, “South Korean President Apologizes for Corruption Scandals,” The New York Times, July 24, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/25/world/asia/lee-myung-bak-of-south-korea-apologizes-for-corruption-scandals.html?ref=world