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KIC Research in Brief

The Analytical Framework of Corruption in Korea from Political and Social Perspectives


Government corruption has become a severe issue in Korea once more due to an outbreak of a series of political scandals, such as the 2016 South Korea’s high-profile corruption scandal, called as ‘Choi Soon-sil gate’ and other related corruption scandals.

The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), issued annually by the Transparency International (TI) showed that the corruption transparency level in Korea peaked in 2005 and showed other similar patterns over the decade. However, in 2016, without the impact of Korea’s massive political scandal by Choi Soon-sil, which deteriorated the former President Park Guen-hye’s administration, are reflected in the CPI; the index indicated that Korea’s corruption level was drastically high.

For a more effective response, the system of corruption crimes in Korea requires a deeper examination for a more comprehensive understanding of the change of trends.

Analytical Framework and Systems of Corruption in Korea

It is necessary to discover the answer to the question: How come there is no available solution for the corruption in Korea and why is the situation worse than before? In light of this, this paper will analyze the structure of corruption in Korea from a Korean democracy and its politics.

The importance of analyzing political structure: 1) Current corruption trends of Korea demonstrated that the rates of corruption crimes committed by non-elected and low-rank governmental officials have remarkably decreased, however, the seriousness of the crimes committed by high-rank officials and in leadership positions are still an issue. 2) Recently, corruption in the Executive and the Legislative branches, especially regarding its political structure and election system, has significantly influenced the corruption crime trend in Korea.

In comparison to other democratic countries, Korea has suffered more severe occurrences of corruption. To explain this phenomenon from the macroscopic and nationwide viewpoints, it can be suggested that countries with fewer numbers of null and void votes are less likely to be corrupted. For example, northern European countries with an election system of 100% proportional representation have secured similarity between the rates of party turnout and the rates of party seats.

Korea is the country with the highest percentage of null and void votes and winner-takes-it-all political system. Therefore, it is very susceptible to corruption compared to other democratic countries.

The high power of the imperial president is at the center of the Korean-type of the winner-takes-it-all political system:

1. The Korean president has the appointing power directly to an approximate 1,500 positions, including Prosecutor General, Commissioner of National Tax Service, Chief of National Intelligence Service and Chief Justice of Supreme Court, and indirectly 20,000 or more job posts. With very weak checks and balances by the National Assembly and mighty power of the President, President-related corruptions by relatives and persons in special relations occurred continuously like a vicious circle.

2. Winning the election is guaranteed to empower the President with too many rights practically rather than the rate of votes earned. It strongly motivates presidential candidates to be the winner of the election by all means; thus, a series of secondary and tertiary corruption scandals may occur.

The Korean political system of the winner-takes-it-all strengthens the exclusive interest of the elite power group and continuously creates a derived structure in front of the power elite. Accordingly, it works with a fundamental mechanism to rationalize corruption throughout society such as politics, Judiciary, legal circles, and the private sector.

Implications of Analysis and Proposed Improvement Plan

Reform of the Korean winner-takes-it-all political system is necessary. In other words, it is crucial to improve the electoral system by altering the current government’s structure by amending the constitution and expanding the proportional representation of the parties.