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The Olympic spotlight shines on South Korea

Choi Soon-sil, former presidential advisor, jailed 20 years“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” said Justice Louis Brandeis in 1913. This month, the global spotlight shines on South Korea as it hosts the 2018 Olympic Games. And what we see is a country taking historic measures to hold public and private officials accountable for corruption.

Just today, a South Korean court sentenced Choi Soon-sil, close advisor to former president Park Geun-ye, to twenty years in prison for her role in a sprawling corruption scheme.

Choi used a combination of non-profit organizations and paper companies, in South Korea and overseas, to launder bribe money solicited from some of South Korea’s most prominent conglomerates. Given her influence on then-President Park, Choi could promise favorable business treatment from the government in exchange for the bribes. Choi then funneled the bribe money through her organizations to use it for personal purposes.

So too was the chairman of  South Korea’s prestigious Lotte conglomerate, Shin Dong-bin, sentenced today for his role, receiving 2.5 years in prison. This follows last year’s conviction of de facto Samsung chair Lee Jae-yong for similar conduct. Though Lee was released from prison last week, Samsung companies continue to be investigated for related acts of corruption.

And of course, this all comes in the wake of last year’s historic impeachment of President Park Geun-ye for her role in this scheme. Park was the first president in South Korea history to be impeached.

For two consecutive Olympic Games, the host country has been embroiled in a massive public corruption crackdown. With Brazil, host of the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Operation Car Wash and related corruption allegations impeached a sitting president, criminally convicted the prior president, and let to the imprisonment of leading Brazilian corporate leaders. As if by script, South Korea’s scandal, dubbed “Choi-gate,” is having nearly the same effect, and at the same time.

One of the famed “Asian tigers,” South Korea emerged from the rubble of the Korean War to become among the dozen largest economies in the world. The country’s recipe for progress included an authoritarian ruler working closely with family-owned conglomerates called “chaebol.” The recipe worked, but corruption was its collateral cost. Now, following years of pursing an aggressive economic agenda, South Korea is seemingly pursuing an anti-corruption agenda that is nearly as bold. So too is it equally deserving of recognition.

As the PyeongChang Olympics continue, we’ll further delve into this fascinating moment in the history of South Korea, of the Olympics, and of the global anti-corruption effort. For further information, see the webpage of the University of Richmond’s Olympic Corruption Research Team here.


Andy Spalding is a lecturer at the International Anti-Corruption Academy, Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, and Senior Editor of the FCPA Blog.