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The integrity that roils South Korea’s corrupt

Shift in thought

Clean prosecutors who honor equality before the law have been key to a probe of high-level corruption from the presidency to Samsung. A stronger democracy is South Korea’s core defense.

Lee Jae-yong, center, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., arrives at the office of the independent counsel in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 22. A court approved the arrest of a billionaire heir to Samsung who is accused of bribery and other charges in connection to a massive corruption scandal.
AP Photo
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

For the past three decades, while North Korea’s dictators were building nuclear weapons, South Korea has been building something far more potent. It has steadily – if at times fitfully – restored its democracy, uniting citizens around such principles as equality before the law. In recent months, that particular principle has been on full display. The president, Park Geun-hye, has been impeached. And 30 of the nation’s most powerful people have been indicted in a corruption probe, including billionaire Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung.

This ongoing sweep of South Korea’s politics and its largest conglomerate would not have been possible without a public demand, reflected in candlelight vigils by protesters, for integrity in the investigations. Until last fall, however, most prosecutors were not in high standing. Last year, for example, two of them were arrested for peddling their influence. “The honor of the prosecution has ... fallen to the floor,” admitted the nation’s chief prosecutor, Kim Soo-nam.

But then, as allegations of corruption grew against the president, a special prosecutor was appointed. Park Young-soo, who was respected for his past roles in putting powerful businessmen in jail, was given a three-month mandate by parliament to investigate the widening scandal. He assembled a team of more than 100 professionals to “uncover the whole truth,” as he put it.

Mr. Park, who likes to blog about the teachings of Confucius, describes himself as an “uncompromising” person who seeks to “build a just society.” He started his career putting low-level criminals behind bars. He eventually challenged the country’s giant businesses, known as chaebols, that are the backbone of the economy but closely tied to politicians. At one point, Park said he would not even spare Prosecutor General Kim if the facts led him to that.

His latest probe has ended for now. Koreans await a ruling by the Constitutional Court on whether the impeachment trial of the president can take place. Common people have honored his work by leaving flowers outside his office. When asked in a recent radio interview why he took on this task, Park replied, “Whenever there was a request to investigate wrongdoings, I could not refuse. That would go against the principles I have lived by.”

His work reflects a widening embrace among South Koreans for the idea of treating all people equally before the law, a principle that remains a source of strength unmatched in North Korea.

The normal drama of South Korean politics will continue. The trial of a top Samsung leader may help erode the power of the chaebols. And an election for a new president is due this year. But the country has moved closer to understanding an innate right of all citizens, one that helps promote clean governance.