Unhappy ending for all the king’s men
If Choi See-joong had ever wondered what his worst day as a public figure would feel like, he definitely found out Monday night.
It was just months ago that the 75-year-old former journalist carried himself like one of the most powerful and influential men in Korea that he was.
He ruled the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), the country’s regulator for broadcasting and telecommunications, with unquestioned authority and assertiveness. He was known as the Cheong Wa Dae “mentor” who had the ear of President Lee Myung-bak on any and every issue from the appointment of policymakers to the designing of political strategies.
He was as much a real person as a caricature of swagger and self-satisfaction, relishing in his power and even the contempt aimed at him in a way that resembled a pro-wrestling villain.
But as he was escorted through waves of cameras and microphones late Monday to a detention center near Seoul, shortly after the Seoul Central District Court approved his arrest, Choi looked like a ghost of his former supremely-confident self.
Choi, along with former Knowledge Economy Minister Park Young-joon, is a central figure in an explosive corruption scandal that may eventually blow up in the face of President Lee, who is already combating a severe case of lame-duck disease.
According to prosecutors, Choi is suspected of receiving 800 million won (about $708,000) from businessman and longtime friend Lee Dong-ryeol in 2005 in exchange for peddling influence over the construction rights involving a massive shopping mall project in southern Seoul. President Lee was Seoul mayor at the time.
Investigators believe Park, whose close relationship with Lee had earned him the nickname “King Vice Minister,” had a role in the bribery scheme as well.
“I think something went terribly wrong,” Choi told reporters before being driven to his cell.
Well, thanks for providing a firm grasp of the obvious, sir, but how did it all come to this?
The portrayal as a shady, under-the-table dealer will irrevocably taint Choi’s legacy as a bureaucrat. Not that he was a shining beacon of public service to begin with as critics had labeled him a media Nazi and Internet idiot.
The suspicions of corruption and cronyism were productive in a way as it put an end to Choi’s run at the helm of the KCC, which was at least four years too long. The KCC, the country’s first converged regulator for media and telecommunications, was definitely a critical unit of the Lee government, but Choi was allowed to operate it with ineptitude and ill-grace.
His biggest task was to push forward Lee’s ambitions to deregulate the media market, starting with eliminating the traditional cross-ownership ban on newspapers and television channels. This had some of the country’s biggest conservative dailies — the Chosun Ilbo, Dong-A Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Maeil Business Daily — competing for new television licenses.
It became obvious that the KCC’s drive for a so-called “media big bang” was motivated less by the intention to jolt growth in the television market than to control the behavior of competing media outlets.
The licensing process that was supposed to take two years dragged on all the way to “Year 4.” It was the KCC that had originally said that the saturated advertisement market would allow for only one or two more channels, but it ended up licensing four of them anyway.
It could be said that authority escaped from the Lee government once the dust settled on the television competition and the losers no longer felt the need to mince words in their headlines.
Choi was also criticized for the way he dealt with Internet users, which could only be described as a disaster upon a catastrophe. After the Lee administration was kicked in the teeth by bloggers over controversial policies such as resuming U.S. beef imports, the KCC went out of its way to gag the noisy Internet rabble.
The most controversial move was to introduce a real-name system, which forced users to make verifiable, real-name registrations for using most Korean websites. While Choi claimed that the suppression of online anonymity was unavoidable to curb what he called “cyber bullying,” critics raised questions over the freedom of expression.
The real-name system turned out to be a futile attempt anyway as there is virtually no way to enforce the rules when the Internet keeps moving toward mobile devices such as smartphones and touch-screen tablets.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Choi has been Korea’s worst bureaucrat in recent memory. Still, his lack of touch and intelligence weren’t enough to write his eulogy as a policymaker. Thank goodness Korean prosecutors continue to do their jobs in the final years of presidencies.