Tycoon behind bars
Chaebol’s reform has just begun
The unprecedented jail term for one of the nation’s big-10 tycoons and his immediate imprisonment Thursday made front-page headlines here. In most advanced countries however, the fact that punishing lawbreakers, rich or poor, is news would make news. Or, they might find the only news value is actually the relative leniency of the sentence.
But this is Korea. And the Seoul Western District Court did what no other courts have done when it meted out four years in prison and $4.5 million in fines to Hanwha Group Chairman Kim Seung-youn for embezzlement ― with no stay of execution.
It was a sharp break away from judicial records of the past few years, during which judges made uniform sentences ― or, as cynics put it, put a fixed price ― of three years in jail with five years of probation for seven out of the nation’s 10 richest people. In most cases, these tycoons paid back with hefty donations. Putting Kim behind bars means this society is ready to leave behind the era of distorted justice, and rightly so.
What it also should do away with is the mentality that identifies large business enterprises with numerous shareholders and stakeholders as their chairmen, and regard corporate funds as personal money. It was such an environment that allowed Chairman Kim to behave ``God-like” within his corporate empire that has wide-ranging business in explosives, chemicals, trade and construction, and demand ``absolute loyalty” from its executives and employees.
The presiding judge said, ``A chaebol chairman should be no special person.” Other law enforcement officials must keep the point until few Koreans think this remark extraordinary and refreshing.
Behind the trend-setting ruling is the pre-election political atmosphere gripped by ``economic democracy” fervor to placate voters sick and tired of chaebol’s rampant infiltration into business domains of smaller firms and self-employed, which widens further the already serious gaps in income and wealth. This leaves us concerned that the hard-won restoration of economic justice might end up a temporary vote-gathering scheme. We hope the politicians know better than that. What voters want is a level playground, not chaebol-bashing out of jealousy.
Also worrisome in this regard is the President’s abuse of special pardons and the increasingly conservative composition of higher courts, which will revert the situation back to the past after the election. The political community should come up with institutional devices to prevent the regression.
The latest ruling is but a natural reminder that businesses, large or small, cannot stand unless they operate legally and ethically. The long process toward reform, and normalcy, has just begun.