Korea’s Constitution says all men are equal before the law, but everybody knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor.
A recent case in point involves Huh Jae-ho, 72, the former chairman of the now-defunct Daeju Group who was handed in 2010 a two-and-half-year suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay 25.4 billion won in fines for evading 50 billion won in corporate taxes and embezzling 10 billion won in corporate funds.
The judge who handed down the lenient ruling made an outrageous decision by allowing Huh to pay off his fines through spending a mere 50 days in a prison workhouse. He valued a day’s labor by the former tycoon at a whopping 500 million won.
Normally, an inmate’s labor is valued at between 50,000 won and 100,000 won per day. The rate applied to Huh was 5,000 to 10,000 times higher.
The judge’s nonsensical decision did not matter at the time because Huh fled to New Zealand to avoid paying the fines. Then, last week, after hiding out for four years overseas, he returned home and headed to the prison workhouse, claiming he did not have the money to pay off his fines.
Huh’s plan to work off his dues brought into focus the court’s preposterous valuation of his labor, triggering a national uproar. The judge who granted him the favor was bombarded with criticism for making a mockery of the rule of law.
But the judge at Gwangju District Court was not alone in making such a ridiculous arrangement, dubbed an “emperor’s labor.” Prosecutors in the city also played a role. They had gone easy on the unscrupulous businessman throughout his trials.
Recently they persuaded Huh to return home and pay off his dues by performing an emperor’s labor. But the public backlash forced them to change their scheme. They halted Huh’s term of labor at the workhouse on Thursday and declared that they would investigate his hidden wealth to collect the fines, which were reduced by 2.5 billion won after Huh completed five days of menial labor at the workhouse.
Prosecutors were right to force Huh to pay off the fines. But they made the decision only after public anger boiled over. Now they need to make up for their misconduct by thoroughly investigating his wealth in Korea and New Zealand.
The National Tax Service also needs to trace his hidden assets to collect national and local taxes Huh evaded.
The judiciary, for its part, should review the current system of allowing judges to work at local district courts throughout their careers as this encourages them to develop corrupt ties with local businessmen.