Another mighty one fell. The Court has spoken. Mr. Lee, Samsung vice chairman and heir, broke the law: embezzlement, bribery, and perjury, among other crimes. An appeal will occur. It likely will fail. Lee will experience prison, and perhaps receive an early commutation or pardon. That will test Moon’s principles and vision.
Chaebol, wealth clans, and conglomerates have brought many benefits. Right now, Mr. Lee’s Samsung is perhaps the most successful high tech firm in the world. It's overtaken Apple, and don’t even try to talk about Motorola. I know many Americans who prefer the Samsung phone to any other. I see them everywhere. In fact, that’s an old motto for this conglomerate: “Samsung is everywhere.”
No one should want or count on Samsung failing. The company has bench strength that most nations would envy. The chairman’s ill; the vice chairman disgraced. The conglomerate isn’t a paper tiger or house of cards. It’s not a popular television drama. It’s part of the fiber of present-day Korean society and indeed global culture.
In the end, that’s the problem – or rather the threat and opportunity. All countries have mega-companies. They attract and reward new talent. They create untold incomes and wealth effects for cities, states, nations, regions, and the world. They inspire imitation and drive innovation.
In tandem, they hire and pay lobbyists, or lobby for themselves. This access to and respect from elected leaders result in undue influence. Money, status, and reputation have impacts. They bias government and public results too much it seems.
It's these relations of access and influence that create the breeding grounds for corruption. There are many Mr. Lee’s. Not all head conglomerates. The success paths have garbage in their genealogies. All who violate the laws should face justice. But the scores of mighty who fall still leave in place a series of economies and polities unreformed. That’s the main challenge.
Relations and networks of influence, what Chinese term “guanxi”, aren’t unique to Korea. However, these networks shouldn’t decide what’s done in the name of the people without more effective limits. Public acts and the use of public channels need transparency and accountability, best handled through the acts of legislatures and oversight bodies, not executives.
Confucian ethics, properly construed, forbids scapegoating of those above and below a person exercising power in matters of public behavior. Confucian ethics normalizes development through learning for the good of others. This comes before anything like (collective) “self-interest”, let alone greed and excess. These principles of ethical behavior, timeless as they are, want continuous vigilance to save and gain present-day relevance and currency. South Korean chaebol leaders’ failings and those of government retainers, show a need for reform and renewal of proper Confucian thinking. And to those naysayers out there, it’s hardly equivalent to neo-Confucian or Joseon versions of Confucianism.
The pathetic moments with Lee, and perhaps former President Park and Choi Soon-sil to come, continue the chain letter that reaches to too many others but yet doesn’t solve the problem enough. The Candlelight Revolution has usefully created momentum for a new political platform and galvanized attitudes and calls for reform.
However, what laws has President Moon promoted, or the National Assembly? What have magnates of conglomerates agreed to do? Little to nothing. That’s the untreated cancer amid such success.
Koreans mustn’t give in to “build ‘em up to knock them down” thinking. There’s more at stake. Legions of public and private personnel have learned the lessons of respect and twisted loyalty to create these forms of corruption. New laws, statutes, curricula for training, and ethical patterns must occur. The Korean people already have spoken. Aspiring politicians or next generation magnates who take this step will inherit the mantle of Korean leadership from the last generation of luminaries.
Who will pick up the mighty Korean political economy through a movement of reform that captures the imagination of the great Korean people? It should drive 21st century advancement. Upholding the great causes of free market economics and democracy wants nothing less. Any takers?
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General Election: Nov 3, 2020
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