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A Strange Catalyst for Philanthropy in South Korea

September 02, 2011

(Nick Scott is assistant to the publisher at PND. In his last post, he wrote about U.S. aid policy and disaster relief efforts in the Horn of Africa.)

Chung Mong-Koo Philanthropy News Digest recently ran an item recounting the rather bizarre saga of South Korean billionaire Chung Mong-Koo's record-setting philanthropic pledge of nearly $1 billion.

Some sources in the region optimistically speculated that the gift might encourage more philanthropy by the mega-wealthy in South Korea -- a strange conclusion to draw from the more-or-less coerced pledge that Chung, the chairman of Hyundai Motor Group and the second wealthiest man in South Korea, seems somewhat reluctant to fulfill. Taking a very charitable view of the situation, the Korea Herald professed uncertainty about what might have inspired Chung to make his pledge before adding this postscript:

One may recall that Chung Mong-Koo had made a commitment to donate 840 billion won in 2007 when he was accused of making illegal profits through business improprieties. As the criminal charges were denied later by the Supreme Court, Chung was relieved of the obligation, but he must have felt moral responsibility to make good on his pledge....

Maybe he did, but the Herald apparently felt no moral responsibility to report that the charges were actually dropped after Chung received a presidential pardon based on his importance to the fast-growing Korean economy. Apparently, this sort of crony-capitalist two-step is a rite of passage among South Korea's mega-wealthy, as evidenced by billionaire tycoon Lee Kun-Hee receiving a similar pardon after being convicted of tax evasion in 2008. Following a two-year hiatus (and no time in prison), Lee has returned to his former position as chairman of the Samsung Group, the multinational conglomerate. Despite a certain amount of outrage on the part of South Korean civic groups about the government's lenient attitude toward corporate malfeasance, it would seem that in South Korea, the health of the country's surging economy trumps concerns over corporate governance.

When it comes to philanthropy, Chung Mong-Koo and Lee Kun-Hee are hardly ideal role models. Their charitable gifts surely will be welcomed by many NGOs and civic groups, but the idea of philanthropy as a "Get Out of Jail" card seems like a troubling precedent to embrace -- in South Korea or anywhere else.

-- Nick Scott

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