Comparative Analysis of Political Corruption in Japan and South Korea

After the Cold War, the ideological differences between political parties lessened, and more voters focused on politicians rather than parties, including in Japan and South Korea. East Asian traditional culture about interpersonal relations sometimes leads to corruption scandals based on nepotism. Political corruption undermines institutional trust in democracies. Disappointed voters who no longer trust the democratic system tend towards nepotism, causing a vicious circle.

A globally well-known anti-corruption NGO, Transparency International (TI), publishes a Corruption Perception Index (CPI) every year. This index ranks countries by their perceived levels of public sector corruption. A country with a higher index indicates a lower level of corruption. For instance, as of 2021, Japan’s score is 73, and South Korea’s score is 62, meaning South Korea is ‘more corrupt’ than Japan. According to TI, for the last decade, in Northeast Asian democracies, Japan has scored the highest on the CPI while South Korea has scored the lowest. Therefore, it is meaningful to compare political corruption in these two countries to determine why South Korea is more corrupt than Japan and whether the CPI is reliable in its assessment.

On March 10, 2022, South Korean conservative politician Yoon Seok-yeol was elected president, narrowly defeating his rival, Lee Jae-myung, who has a more progressive political orientation like President Moon Jae-in. Yoon is from the People Power Party (PPP), and Lee and Moon are from the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK). These two parties represent the conservative and liberal main political camps in South Korea, respectively. During the election, both camps attacked each other with insulting language. Some feared that the loser of the election would be arrested. When Yoon’s victory was confirmed, it raised speculation whether Moon would be arrested on ‘political corruption’ charges like other former presidents, such as Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. Allegations of corruption against opponents from another political camp appear to be an essential means of political struggle in South Korea, resulting in dramatic political changes. 

Professor Lee Chung-hee argues that South Korean presidents have characteristics of an ‘imperial presidency’. The term ‘imperial presidency’ is used to describe US presidents from the 1950s to the 1970s. During the Cold War, they had more extraordinary powers to deal with the threat of communism. Some were criticised for abusing their power. In South Korea, given the serious security threat from the north, presidents have extraordinary powers. The lack of adequate checks and balances on the powers of the South Korean president is a primary reason most are involved in corruption scandals.

Compared to South Korea, Japan is unlikely to see dramatic political changes, especially regarding allegations of corruption involving top leaders, due to the long rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a big tent of conservatism with different factions or habatsu, each with a central figure. Before the political reform in 1994, the LDP’s dominant position caused many political corruption scandals, such as Lockheed bribery scandals. Financial support may be privately provided directly to a faction or individual politician rather than the LDP headquarters. However, to protect the party’s reputation and solidarity, factional leaders are unlikely to accuse each other of corruption. In addition, in contrast to South Korea, it is hard for Japanese opposition parties to fight the LDP with allegations of corruption. I am not suggesting that South Korean politicians often make fabricated allegations to score political points, but rather that the low likelihood of transfer of political power in Japan will inevitably lead to a situation where political corruption will be more difficult for outsiders to detect and for opposition parties to initiate charges.

Political corruption exists in all regime types. In democracies, the most common cause of political corruption is election and political party funding, creating opportunities for corrupt politicians to take money illegally. Big businesses may send illegal financial support to politicians for profit. Notably, there is a tradition of a close relationship between big business and government in Japan and South Korea. This tradition dates to right-wing governments intervening in the national economy during the Cold War. Japan and South Korea promoted post-WWII economic recovery and development through a series of industrial plans. Big businesses and governments maintained close ties through channels such as industrial policy, political contributions and personal relationships.

An example of a close relationship between big business and the Japanese government is “Amakudari”, meaning ‘descent from heaven’. In this case, many senior bureaucrats retire to high-profile positions in the private sector. As a result, many earn high salaries without working. Public opinion sees this as a form of political corruption. As a result, Japan passed a law in 2007 restricting this activity. However, it remains prevalent in Japan, as it is more covert and made to look ‘legal’.

In South Korea, several chaebol, which means ‘rich family’, hold most of the country’s wealth. Many political corruption scandals in South Korea have been linked to chaebol. For instance, the Samsung Group sponsored former President Lee Myung-bak’s secret smear campaign against his political opponents. In addition, the Samsung Group was also involved in the political scandal of former President Park Geun-hye in 2016. 

The chaebol rapidly grew after the Korean Peninsula gained independence from Japan in 1945. For private enterprise development, the right-wing government gave many of the former colonizer’s properties and foreign aid to the chaebol. Before the democratisation of South Korea in 1987, the relationship between the chaebol and the government was in a pseudo balance. However, the democratisation reduced the power of the government but not the chaebol. This is arguably the leading cause of political corruption in South Korea.

The Japanese version of chaebol is zaibatsu. They rose to prominence during the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century. Some, such as Mitsubishi and Mitsui, were involved in heavy industry, producing weapons for the Imperial Japanese Army. During WWII, the zaibatsu supported the expansionism of the empire. Hence, the US occupation forces restricted their power after the war. The Americans described splitting the zaibatsu into smaller entities as an essential step towards the ‘economic democratisation’ of Japan. As a result, Japanese zaibatsu are not as powerful as Korean Chaebol.

The polarisation of South Korean politics leads to angry voters loudly accusing candidates from the other camp of corruption. However, Japanese voters’ institutional distrust manifests in low voter turnout, especially among young voters. Low Japanese enthusiasm for political participation leads to a high tolerance of political corruption. When few people come forward to criticise political corruption, the country may well seem ‘less corrupt’. Therefore, we should consider more than the CPI in ranking public sector corruption. 

[Photo by AFP]

Enchen Lan is currently pursuing an MSc in Asian politics from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He holds a BA in International Studies and an MA in Politics and Contemporary History from the University of Nottingham. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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