By John Power
South Korea, by many criteria, increasingly fits the mold of an advanced nation. But, despite the country’s growing role in international affairs and its status as the world’s 13th-biggest economy, one black spot, at least, challenges that definition: pervasive corruption.
Korea’s public sector ranked just 43rd out of 182 countries in last year’s Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. The ranking was a drop of four places from the previous year. Meanwhile, a survey released by the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission last month found that 40 percent of businesspeople deemed Korean society to be corrupt.
This year alone, several of President Lee Myung-bak’s aides and family members, the ex-head of the Korea Communications Commission and the floor leader of the main opposition party have all been implicated in corruption scandals. The private sector has fared little better: Taekwang Group and Hanwa Group’s respective chairmen were handed down prison sentences for separate instances of embezzlement. At the lower levels of the economy, the Financial Supervisory Service sanctioned some 450 financial company employees for misconduct in the first nine months of the year.
In a withering assessment of Korean society, the president, himself currently embroiled in a scandal over a now-abandoned retirement home project, last year claimed that “the entire nation is rotten.”
Kim Sung-soo, the executive director of Transparency International Korea, told The Korea Herald that regulations and punishment of corruption were insufficient, largely because of an overly cozy relationship between the government and private business.
“Korea’s anti-corruption policy and regulations are not strong enough, especially for the private sector, to combat corruption. Presumably there is strong lobbying or even bribery from the private sector to the public sector,” said Kim, who believes that a change of power in December’s presidential election would be a positive step forward as Korea’s corruption perceptions ranking has dropped on the current government’s watch. “Money talks too much in Korea.”
All three main presidential candidates, Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party and independent Ahn Cheol-soo, have placed heavy emphasis on cleaning up the political and business worlds during their campaigns.
Korea’s rapid development in the latter half of the 20th century came on the back of heavy state involvement in the economy, with crony capitalism a persistent feature of previous dictatorial governments. Economic growth was in the past seen as a greater priority than transparency and the rule of law, said Park Gae-ok, director-general of the Anti-Corruption Bureau of the ACRC.
“In the case of Korea, illegalities and irregularities were tolerated in the course of rapid economic growth and in connection with nepotism and paternalism characteristic of Korean society,” said Park. “It takes a very long time to remedy such problems, and detection and punishment are not a fundamental solution.”
Illegality is just one factor in government-business relations with an influence on the scale of corruption. Much of the political realm’s authority to shield the powerful from the consequences of their crimes is enshrined in law. The current and former presidents’ pardoning of numerous political and business figures has long been a source of public antipathy.
Kim Pan-suk, dean of the College of Government and Business at Yonsei University, said that the president was “critical” to efforts to fight corruption.
“In my view, political will is the most important factor in reducing corruption,” said Kim. “If you go back to the Kim Dae-jung regime, he was a very good president and had a good vision to reduce corruption so he promulgated many rules and regulations.”
The Kim Dae-jung administration introduced the Anti-Corruption Act in 2001, and established the Korea Independent Commission Against Corruption the following year. The Lee administration merged the KICAC with two other bodies in 2008 to form the ACRC. The most recent legislative move against corruption was the Act on the Protection of Public Interest Whistleblowers, passed last year. As of October, the ACRC had received 1,216 whistle-blower reports, ranging from issues to do with consumer rights to healthy and safety.
The legislation has resulted in a number of significant outcomes in the public interest, according to Park.
“The new whistle-blowing mechanism has since contributed to correcting violations of the public interest and improving relevant laws and systems,” said Park. “For instance, flaws in reinforcement work for the understructure of a railway bridge were corrected, while legal amendments and introduction of new facilities were made to prevent the infection of the hepatitis B virus through blood transfusion.”
Other anti-corruption measures by the ACRC include a corruption impact assessment of proposed legislation, a yearly assessment of corruption in the public sector, and anti-corruption education and training of public employees.
Park said that his organization is also currently working on the passage of the Bill on the Prohibition of Illegal Solicitations and Prevention of Conflicts of Interest of Public Officials, which would rectify the current situation where officials can avoid punishment if it cannot be established that they provided favors in return for a bribe.
“The bill is aimed at prohibiting malpractices in the public sector, as well as providing specific standards of behavior for preventing the interference of private interests in the performance of public officials’ duties. When enacted, the bill is expected to contribute greatly to preventing and deterring corruption in the public sector,” he said.
Politics and business are not the only explanations offered for the scale of corruption ― many also point to a problem of culture.
“Korean culture is Confucian and authoritarian bureaucracy. Also, school and family ties are very important to (personal) circumstances,” said Kim Taek, a professor of police administration at Jungwon University.
We must renew our social mind and Korean officials and nationwide support for the fight against bureaucratic corruption, for transparency and justice. But Korean political groups, especially the president, parliament members and Korean officials, seek private interest and lack common sense and so they encourage in corruption.”
Yonsei University’s Kim said that an overly partisan media that fixates on certain scandals but ignores others for political reasons added to the lack of transparency in Korean society.
“Under such circumstances, if you investigate something, people may suspect some biased evaluation, so I think this situation should be corrected. The media should be fair and broadly supported by the general public and then investigate certain things and they will have the public’s confidence and trust.”
Institutions, however, can only be so responsible for fixing societal problems, according to some experts. The most fundamental change must ultimately come from the public.
“The most fundamental element in fighting corruption is the change in the mindset of people,” said Park. “Increased soundness and transparency in a society helps create an environment that keeps even customary malpractices and minor forms of corruption from taking root.”