Former Agriculture-Forestry Minister Im Sang-gyu should have secured a place in the annals of Korean bureaucracy as a model public administrator, if only he had a little more courage to escape the temptation of corruption. He called it “the devil’s snare” in his suicide note found Monday.
Suicide is not rare in this country. But in most corruption scandals, the accused bureaucrats or politicians exert great perseverance to clear their names through court battles; some are successful and some are not. Seeing the banality of bureaucratic improprieties in this country, people tend not to admire those who choose death instead of disgrace. Yet, there are individuals who cannot forgive themselves for their own weakness.
“Torment and sorrow are holding me. It is impossible to escape from this devil’s snare. I am tired and exhausted. … All these troubles originated from relations that I valued,” Im said in his letter to his family. His suicide came a week after the prosecution banned his overseas travel upon investigating allegations of influence peddling. Prosecutors suspected Im received 20 million won from Yu Sang-bong, a catering business broker who is accused of wide-ranging bribery with senior government officials.
Im made his name as the budget czar of the Kim Dae-jung administration. He then held the positions of vice minister of science and technology and minister of cabinet coordination before serving as the agriculture-forestry minister for seven months under President Roh Moo-hyun. After retirement from public service, he took professorship at Suncheon University and was elected its president a year ago.
His name also came up in the ongoing prosecution probe into bribery and embezzlement of the executives of the Busan Savings Bank group. The group’s chairman, Park Yeon-ho, is Im’s high school alumnus and father-in-law of his son. Im is alleged to have withdrawn 50 million won from the Busan-based bank shortly before it was ordered to close business. Here, we are seeing the structure of elite society woven with school and family ties that often foment corruption.
Two years ago, the nation was shocked by the suicide of Roh, who faced a prosecution probe in connection with his friend Park Yeon-cha’s money scandals, which also involved Roh’s wife and son. The tragedy, however, had little impact on the general landscape of bureaucratic and political corruption. Structural improprieties between administrators and contractors and between politicians and favor-seeking donors persisted while international transparency indices put low figures for this country.
About a third of elected chiefs of local administrations have been investigated for bribery and misappropriation charges. About half of those investigated have been convicted, with some saving their positions with light punishment. In the case of Seongnam City just south of Seoul, two former mayors were imprisoned, the third is now in jail and the incumbent has just installed CCTV cameras in and outside his office to ward off visitors offering bribes.
Im Sang-gyu’s death must be saddening those who respected his bureaucratic competence and envied his successful career. But many incumbents in the central and local government offices will be comparing the level of their own improprieties with the kind of misdeeds that were attributed to Im or others whose names appeared in recent news items on prosecution investigations.
Some of them may console themselves reassuring their relative cleanness while others will feel uncomfortable with the realization of the seriousness of what they had been routinely doing and the gravity of possible consequences. If the latter group changes their attitude even a little, there will be an improvement in our bureaucratic community; without a new awakening, we will see more tragic endings of brilliant bureaucratic careers in the days ahead.