President Park Geun-hye’s pledge of nontolerance for white collar crimes by chaebol chiefs may be the latest among a string of election promises being cast off.
On Sept. 24, Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn hinted at the possibility of releasing jailed businessmen on parole or granting them a pardon, saying, “Couldn’t they be given a chance if a national consensus is formed?” The very next day Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy and Minister of Strategy and Finance Choi Kyung-hwan expressed support for Hwang, saying, “Economic recovery is delayed because of lack of investment and I completely sympathize with what Minister Hwang said.”
The Justice Ministry last year declared that those in leadership positions in society and high-ranking government officials will not be given parole, as a matter of principle. It was in that spirit of nontolerance that Park Yeon-cha, former chairman of Taekwang, was denied parole even after approval was granted by the parole board. Hwang had previously repeatedly emphasized a strict application of the law with regards to businessmen involved in irregularities, and a special amnesty in January did not include businessmen.
Those in favor of paroles and pardons for chaebol chiefs claim reverse discrimination, arguing that businessmen should be eligible for parole just as ordinary citizens are. SK Corporation chairman Chey Tae-won has been in prison for one year and eight months, serving a four-year sentence. This is the longest a chaebol chief has been imprisoned. His younger brother is also in prison.
The fact that Hwang and Choi spoke in tandem makes it highly suspect that the Blue House is behind the change in position on nontolerance for economic crimes. Whether there has been a change in public opinion on the matter is unclear. Even Hwang said that any granting of parole or a pardon for chaebol chiefs would be contingent upon a national consensus. Hwang and Choi appear to have assumed leadership in creating such a national consensus.
The main argument for releasing the imprisoned business chiefs put forward by Hwang and Choi is that their absence hampers decision-making at the nation’s largest conglomerates and subsequently hinders investment. A lack of investment is being blamed for the poor economic recovery.
Get the chaebol chiefs out of prison and they will spur an economic recovery, is what Hwang and Choi are saying. But does the public share that sentiment? Can we be convinced that the very criminals convicted of embezzlement, tax evasion, accounting fraud and other irregularities that threaten to shake the economic order can be charged with leading the country’s economic recovery?
Economic crimes are particularly treacherous, because the average citizens are the victims, completely at the mercy of the perpetrators. The Blue House ought to pay close attention to how the ordinary citizens feel.