Korea at a turning point
The FT's Bryan Harris looks at why the arrests of former president Park Geun-hye and the de facto head of Samsung Lee Jae-yong have revitalised enthusiasm for democracy in the East Asian nation .
Filmed, produced and edited by Tom Griggs. Additional footage by Reuters
South Korea's president and it's most powerful man are behind bars awaiting trial, caught up in a corruption scandal that's exposed collusion between the country's business and political elite. The detention of former president Park Geun-hye and Samsung de facto head Lee Jae-yong for their alleged roles in a sprawling corruption sage have captivated the nation. After initial embarrassment over the revelations of cult links, backroom deals, and cronyism, South Koreans have turned the crisis on its head. Emerging from the scandal is a surprisingly positive debate about democracy, transparency, and the future of the nation.
I think Korea stands at a historic crossroads. We are having political, security and diplomatic, and economic risks at the same time.
A presidential election will be held in early May. At the heart of the debate is whether South Korea can put an end to the graft and cronyism that has so long afflicted the nation.
The big business and politics, there's a long history behind the two being significantly integrated. In the past it was the government, the politicians, that led. The business was like the executive arm. Now it is the business sector that is leading, actually influencing the politicians.
It's difficult to overstate the presence of Samsung in South Korea. The core Samsung Electronics company, that makes mobile phones, semiconductors, and home appliances, accounts for more than 20% of the main board of the Korean stock exchange. No wonder Korea is sometimes called the Samsung Republic.
Korean government went on international relations trip, IR trip. And when asked by that reporters, or the investors, this government official said Samsung is Korea, Korea is Samsung.
The sprawling conglomerate is sometimes likened it to the nation's feudal empires, with Mr. Lee cast as the crown prince. The company has come under increased fire in recent years for its opaque ownership structure, and claims that it supported the interests of the founding family over minority shareholders. Mr. Lee had promised reform, but his trial may put an end to that.
Samsung declined to participate in this video, and tried to stop us filming this protest outside their head office. They have previously denied that Mr. Lee had committed any crime.
I don't think he or Samsung has shown any reform. if you take a look at all the outside directors, there were not really independent outside directors. And because their lack of independence, they led to this merger of Samsung, CNT and [INAUDIBLE] industry, which brought up all this scandal.
The leading candidates to become the country's next president vowed to end the use of presidential pardons for corrupt executives, a pledge that will be put to the test if Mr. Lee is found guilty. But not everyone wants to change the way Korea is run. Pointing only to success, the strongman leadership had in turning South Korea from the poor backwater into a thriving modern economy. This encampment outside Seoul City Hall is manned 24 hours a day by right wing supporters of the former president, angry at the way she was removed from office on what they see as a liberal conspiracy.
For the younger generation, however, brought up with the memory of war, authoritarian leadership style is no longer acceptable. And the Park impeachment feels like a pivotal moment in the country's political development.
For a while, the Korean people were politically depressed. It seemed like nobody is listening to you. But having this process and having impeached the President Park Geun-hye, and also even arrested her, that actually restore our confidence in our system. And in the government, in politics. And that is really important.
Winter is just ended in South Korea. Now spring has arrived, and many South Koreans, especially the young, are hoping that change is going to bloom. Bryan Harris, Financial Times, Seoul.