South Korea: The Many Uses of an Amnesty

4 MINS READAug 12, 2008 | 20:42 GMT
As part of the country's annual celebration ritual for its Liberation Day, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak pardoned some 342,000 white-collar criminals and minor offenders Aug. 12, including top corporate figures like Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong Koo. This year's amnesty serves multiple purposes.
South Korean President Lee Myung Bak on Aug. 12 pardoned some 342,000 people convicted of white-collar crimes and minor offenses, including 74 business leaders, the president's office announced. Just as it did in 2007, Seoul explained this year's pardoning of members of key Korean family-owned business giants, known as chaebols, as a move to help rejuvenate the struggling South Korean economy. The aim is to free up the senior management of the country's largest companies to reinvigorate the economy and create new jobs. Notable examples of those pardoned include Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong Koo, SK Group Chairman Chey Tae Won and Hanwha Group Chairman Kim Seung Youn. This year's amnesty list serves multiple political and economic purposes, and it confirms Lee's intent to revive South Korea's tried and tested "chaebol-centric" economic growth model. Presidential amnesties have long been part of South Korea's annual Aug. 15 Liberation Day celebrations; they are given to those convicted of political, commercial and other small-scale misdemeanors, like traffic offenses. Those pardoned can number in the hundreds (142 in 2006) or millions (4.8 million in 2002), helping to shore up domestic support — something Lee could greatly use at present. His popularity has plummeted to record lows in the face of rising commodity prices, the government's decision to reopen the country to U.S. beef imports, and the stalling of the widely supported inter-Korean reconciliation process over the recent killing by North Korea of a South Korean tourist. Only six months into his presidency, Lee has already offered to resign, and his Cabinet has been reshuffled. Economically, pardoning the owners of South Korea's chaebols is meant to prevent the country's prime economic movers and shakers from falling out of the game. The country's greatest growth came under former President Park Chung Hee, who personally directed the country's chaebols into industries he handpicked. He sought to minimize competition among domestic firms to aid them in competition against their larger (and then more successful) international counterparts in the global marketplace. In other words, rather than having Samsung, Daewoo or Hyundai compete against each other over the manufacture of chemicals, for example, one would focus on chemicals while the others worked to develop a competitive edge in a different technology. Today, Lee's government is looking to reinvigorate the Chaebol as part of his growth-based economic strategy. Through creative business-government partnerships, something he employed as mayor of Seoul, Lee hopes to kick-start the Korean economy and put it back on a rapid growth path. High energy and commodity prices and repeated political problems have thus far delayed his economic policies, but via the gesture to the chaebol, Lee hopes to rally big businesses to follow his lead. Lee's critics claim that overriding the judicial system to prop up the country's corrupted networks of nonproductive firms will in the long term only worsen the country's nontransparent and highly inefficient management structures. But Lee doesn't see it as a long-term sellout to corrupt business leaders, or as a second-best solution for reviving the economy when fiscal packages fail to perk up consumer sentiment. Rather, he sees it as a first-best solution that marries political and economic forces to develop multinational corporations capable of furthering the nation's longer-term geopolitical interests. This doesn't mean that economic efficiency will be maximized in the long run, but in Lee's eyes, as a tried and tested formula, it certainly stands a better chance of overcoming the social turbulence and economic uncertainty that his country currently faces.

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