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South Korea presidential candidates have ambitious reform plans

An unwelcome ritual of South Korean politics is for the president to be plagued by serious corruption scandals near the end of his term.

President Lee Myung-bak (left) will leave office in February next year. And true to form, he’s in trouble.

Three month ago, Lee’s brother, Lee Sang-deuk, was arrested for bribery. Another brother and the president’s only son are being investigated for alleged irregularities in funding Lee’s retirement home.

Several aides and close confidants of the president have already been sentenced for bribery and corruption, including the former vice minister of finance, Park Young-joon.

Meanwhile, all three South Korean presidential candidates have announced comprehensive plans to curb corruption. The election will be held on December 19.

The frontrunner is Park Geun-hye. She’s from the pro-business Saenuri Party but has caused a stir by plans to restrict the power of the chaebol. That aim would be controversial for any candidate. But because Park’s father was a military leader who helped promote the chaebol in the 1960s and 70s, her ideas have created a political firestorm.

The candidate from the opposition Democratic United Party, Moon Jae-in, has pledged to reinstate the once independent anti-corruption commission and restrict presidential pardons for those convicted of bribery, malfeasance and embezzlement. Moon’s reform plan would require siblings of presidents and presidential candidates to disclose their assets.

Whoever wins the election will need plenty of political skills to make real changes in the relationship with South Korea’s business interests. But that’s probably the only way to keep history from repeating itself.


Zhang Min is a researcher for the FCPA Blog members area.

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