Many Koreans think themselves accustomed to all sorts of corrupt practices plaguing society, but they have still been stunned by recent corruption allegations against a mayor and his family.
Kim Hak-kyu, the mayor of Yongin in Gyeonggi Province, allegedly had his associates pay for his rent and back taxes worth about 150 million won ($132,000) before he ran in the 2010 local elections. His wife is suspected of receiving 160 million won from seven businessmen to help finance her husband’s campaign. Shortly after his election, his son allegedly took 80 million won from two builders in return for promising to help them obtain contracts with the municipal government.
The police plan to summon the mayor for questioning later this month after they finish interrogating his wife and son, who are in detention. Investigators suspect he was involved in his family’s alleged receipt of illicit money.
The case of the mayor’s family is just the latest illustration of how rampant corruption has become in local governments since voters were allowed to directly choose their chiefs along with regional councilors in the early 1990s.
If punished, Kim will become the fifth consecutive mayor of Yongin to receive criminal punishment for bribery and other wrongdoings. Residents in the neighboring city of Seongnam just hope that their current mayor does not follow in the footsteps of his four predecessors, who were jailed on corruption charges.
More than four in 10 heads of small cities, wards and counties elected in 2006 to the previous four-year term have been charged for illegal acts including election law violations and bribery.
According to figures from the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, 323 of the 3,626 local councilors selected in the same elections suffered a similar fate.
The mayoral family’s case should lead to tougher and more effective measures being taken to rein in corruption by local government officials. What is particularly needed is a system that makes it obligatory to publicize detailed information on lucrative development projects so that they can be implemented in a transparent way. Construction projects should be subject to more thorough scrutiny to reduce the room for corrupt links between local government chiefs and contractors.
Measures are also needed to reduce campaign costs to prevent candidates from getting into heavy debt and thus being tempted into corruption to pay for it after election.
Surely, fighting corruption is not a task limited to the local level. Corruption has long been cited as one of the major obstacles to Korea becoming a truly advanced country. A report released by a local research institute in June estimated that the country’s economy would grow by an extra 0.65 percentage point if its anticorruption environment improved to the average level of the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Korea would never be able to reach its eventual destination as long as such embarrassing corruption among public officials and their families is repeated in the future.