Secrecy and Korea’s corruption problem

The following op-ed was originally written for translation into Korean for Newsweek Korea. — John.

With another year coming to a close, the release of Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index this week presents an opportunity to reflect on the reality of corruption in South Korea. According to the Berlin-based organization’s findings, the reality is a grim one.

Korea not only failed to improve on its previous year’s ranking, but dropped one place to 46th among 177 countries. More troubling still, this year’s ranking continues a steady downward trend: the nation has seen its position fall every year since 2010, when it ranked 39th. While it is worth noting that the index specifically measures perceptions rather than hard data, it is a nevertheless respected gauge worldwide. A ranking just inside the top 50 can only be described as disappointing for a country at Korea’s advanced stage of development. Illustrating this point, Korea was outranked by a number of far less wealthy countries including, but not limited to, Botswana, Puerto Rico, Cyprus, Poland and Estonia.

When I wrote about this issue for The Korea Herald around this time last year, various experts on the issue offered their explanations for Korea’s poor faring. Kim Sung-soo, the director of Transparency International Korea, pointed to a cosy relationship between the public sector and private business that resulted in lax punishment of corruption. Park Gae-ok, an official with the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, meanwhile, argued that Korean society had long tolerated corruption as the price of its remarkably fast economic development. Kim Taek, a professor of police administration at Jungwon University, put blame on Korean culture itself, arguing that family and school ties created strong incentives for shady dealings.

All of these explanations no doubt have merit. But I would offer one more: the profound secrecy by which much of Korean society operates.

It is no accident that the most prominent anti-corruption organization in the world features the word “transparency” in its name. In a transparent society, the public square is freely observable to all. When an individual’s actions are likely to have implications for the public, it is expected that they and their behaviour will be scrutinized. This especially applies to people with political, economic or social power because their ability to influence society is that much greater. Transparency implies accountability because laying blame first requires knowing who is at fault. And it implies democracy because informed decision-making is impossible without relevant information. Transparency makes corruption both less likely and harder to get away with.

In Korea, a culture of secrecy severely limits the public’s ability to accurately assess the society in which they live. Stories of crime and corruption in the Korean media rarely identify any of the parties involved, instead using common surnames like “Kim” to describe suspects and law enforcement officials alike. Even convicted murders are routinely spared the indignity of having their name appear in the news. In more than three years working in Korea as a journalist, I have become resigned to the fact that members of the public and public officials alike are generally extremely reluctant to have their name appear in print, even in the most innocuous of circumstances. Added to this is an extremely harsh defamation regime that, unlike most of the developed world, treats certain speech as a criminal rather than civil offence, and shields even the reputations of the deceased.

There is a tension between the “right to privacy” and the “right to know” in every developed society, and views inevitably differ on where to draw the line. There no doubt are people who appreciate Korea’s apparent prioritization of privacy compared with other countries. But such is the lack of transparency here that the media’s function as a public watchdog is regularly rendered impotent.

I saw just one example of this when I wrote a number of stories about a fraudulent travel agent in late 2011 and earlier 2012. After initially not covering the case, in which dozens of foreigners living in Korea were scammed out of some $150,000, Korean language media eventually began following the story. Their reports, however, named neither the scam artist nor the name of his business. In other words, members of the public were given no means to protect themselves from exploitation. The news, in effect, was useless. The dearth of information was especially pertinent in this case as the fraudster had already been arrested and released, whereupon he continued his scam under a new alias. It is not unreasonable to conjecture that similar information vacuums regularly result in the avoidable victimization of innocent people.

If Korea is serious about battling corruption, it needs to bring society further into the light. Defamation law reform would lessen the risks of speaking out against unethical conduct in both the public and private sectors. Media convention could be reimagined so that the criminal and the corrupt are not given more protection than the public the media purports to represent. Perhaps more than anything, society could benefit from less secrecy in everyday life. Corruption grows best when it can’t be seen.

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