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[Editorial] Money and politics

Sung’s case indicates illegal donations still rampant

The claim of the late tycoon Sung Woan-jong that he gave huge sums of money to politicians close to President Park Geun-hye showed once again that Korean politics is still heavily contaminated by money.

All the politicians mentioned by Sung denied they had received money from the former chief of Keangnam Enterprises, who committed suicide Thursday in the midst of an investigation into corruption allegations against him.

But while denials are common, we know well that in many such cases, allegations of illegal donations and bribery have turned out to be true. In the Sung case, a man who Sung pointed to as a middleman between himself and South Gyeongsang Gov. Hong Joon-pyo, has already indicated that Sung’s claim that he gave 100 million to Hong in 2011 is true.

What Sung told a newspaper in an interview, which he backed up by leaving a memo containing names and information about the amounts of money, raises enough suspicion that he offered money to politicians.

Besides the interview and the memo, an increasing number of politicians are admitting that they received calls from Sung seeking help in the days leading up to his death. They include the current Blue House chief of staff Lee Byung-ki, ruling party leader Kim Moo-sung, Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo and Rep. Suh Chung-won, a close associate of President Park.

One can easily imagine that they were very close to Sung and we know that such close relationships between politicians and businessmen are tied up with money.

It is an open secret that politicians take illegal donations from businesses, interest groups and people who need political influence. Sometimes they offer favors in legislative programs or exert influence on officials in central and local governments in return for money.

The sizes of such illegal donations are much larger during election times, especially before presidential polls.

Besides individual financing, ranking party officials raise funds on behalf of candidates and parties, and it is widely believed that they ― ruling and opposition parties alike ― violate the law in one way or another.

In a telephone interview, which took place several hours before he hanged himself on a mountain, Sung said he gave Huh Tae-yeol 700 million won in 2007. This was when Huh was a key campaign manager for Park, who unsuccessfully ran for the ruling party’s presidential nomination that year. Sung said Huh used the money for Park’s nomination campaign.

Sung also claimed that he gave Hong Moon-jong, secretary general of the ruling party, 200 million won in 2012 when the lawmaker was a senior member of Park’s presidential campaign team.

Both Huh and Hong flatly denied Sung’s allegation, but this raises the possibility that Park’s camp ― both in 2007 and 2012 ― also violated the law.

Park used to say that she was very strict with the handling of her political funds, but the fact that as many as eight key aides, including her former and current chiefs of staff, the ruling party secretary-general and even the prime minister are mentioned in Sung’s memo raises the possibility that the reality was different.

Few Koreans would think that after Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, any president dared to receive money from business tycoons at the Blue House. But it is also true that few Koreans believe what Sung said was all lies.

There are ample reasons why we believe many Korean politicians still take money without guilt. The Sung scandal should raise public pressure to make relevant laws stricter to achieve greater transparency in political financing. Before that, the prosecution must conduct a thorough probe into all the allegations and Park’s campaign finances.
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