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.


[The Korea Herald] Video of expats abusing Korean woman ‘staged’

A video appearing to show the sexual harassment of an inebriated Korean woman by a number of white men set off a media fire storm in July 2013. The disturbing footage was not only reported on in most major local media, but international outlets including The Daily Mail, Washington Post, New York Daily News and Reports generally uncritically accepted the footage to be genuine. This article, the first of four on the video published in The Korea Herald, was the first to call into question the veracity of the video, which was later proved to have been staged in my follow-up inquiries. — John.


By John Power

An online video showing a Korean woman apparently being harassed by a group of Western men in a nightclub was staged, two men who say they acted in the video have claimed.

The video, which has caused outrage online in recent days and appeared in Korean and foreign media including the Washington Post webpage, appears to show a number of men sexually and verbally harassing an intoxicated Korean woman. The men are shown cursing at the woman, filming her chest and forcing her own finger up her nose and into her mouth.

Some Internet users criticized the woman as being “obsessed with white guys” or claimed “what you get is what you deserve.” Others said she was embarrassing her country, calling her a “kimchi girl,” a degrading term used for Korean women.

After it attracted thousands of angry comments from local netizens and was picked up by Korean media, Max Fisher of the Washington Post wrote about the video on his official blog on Monday. His post has in turn been written about by numerous Korean media outlets.

Two men, however, separately contacted The Korea Herald claiming that the video was edited and was in fact part of a series of short horror films shot in 2011. One of the men said that the video had been shot to show the “horror” of how society treats people with physical deformities. In the controversial video, the men are also shown ridiculing the young woman over the condition of her teeth.

One of the alleged actors, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, provided a screenshot from a Facebook conversation showing the alleged director admitting that the video was staged. The apparent director of the video studied film at a university in Seoul, according to his Facebook account and a university webpage from 2004.

In the conversation, the apparent director said that he uploaded the video three years ago, but it had since been taken down and he was unsure of how it resurfaced.

“I can see the video is reedited and cut many scenes. I’m in (sic) page with you in announcing that the video was fake,” he wrote.

He also suggested doing an interview with the woman in the video to clear any misunderstanding. He added, however, that they should “wait a while” first before doing anything.

One of the men claiming to be an actor in the film said he had no idea the film would be used in such a manner.

The alleged director was contacted by The Korea Herald but had not responded by press time.

[The Korea Herald ] How can Korea end poverty?

By John Power

Korea’s meteoric rise to prosperity since the 1960s is often cited as an almost unparalleled example of success in lifting a population out of poverty. But despite a vast improvement in living standards since the aftermath of the Korean War, poverty remains an everyday reality for a significant number of Koreans.

According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, 15.2 percent of Koreans earn below 50 percent of the median wage after taxes and government transfers.

Some of this poverty is relative, measured against the wealth of society as a whole, rather than reflecting people’s ability to make ends meet. Nevertheless, a widening gap between the richest and poorest has become a major concern of the public as well as the political classes.

Residents of Guryong shanty village live in the shadow of Seoul’s wealthy Gangnam district. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

More striking for a developed country is the number of households in absolute poverty. According to a study by Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs covering the years 2004-2009, 27 percent of households had seen their income fall below the absolute poverty level for a least one year, meaning they couldn’t meet the costs of basic goods.

Another statistic, from Statistics Korea, puts it that 2.11 million workers earned less than the minimum monthly wage of 858,990 won (about $770) in 2010.

Kim Kyo-seong, a professor at the School of Social Welfare at Chung-Ang University, believes the government underestimates the scale of poverty in the country, something reflected in its meager welfare provision.

“The government makes the problem worse or even they try to hide the exact number or exact scale of poverty (affected) households,” said Kim. “Only 5-6 percent of households or less can receive the benefits from the social security or social assistance programs. The government must make a more generous social assistance program and try to make more decent jobs … with adequate wages.”

Kim identifies a high percentage of irregular workers in particular as a major driver of poverty here. Last year, irregular workers made up more than 34 percent of the country’s workforce, according to official figures, high by OECD standards. Other estimates put the figure at more than 47 percent.

Elderly poverty also sets Korea apart from other wealthy countries: More than 45 percent of Korea’s elderly fall below the poverty line, compared to the OECD average of around 13 percent.

“The national pension scheme, the old-age pension for the general public, was introduced in 1988. So it is relatively young and there are not many people who are receiving the pension benefit,” said Koh Yong-sun, a researcher at Korea Development Institute.

In 2010, 2.3 million people received old-age pension benefits from the National Pension Service out of 19.1 million enrolled, according to Rand Population and Labor, a U.S.-based policy think tank. When the NPS was set up, it was envisaged that recipients with 40 years of contributions would receive 60 percent of their income in pension payments. Fiscal realties mean this proportion will be reduced to 40 percent by 2028.

With many low wage workers unable to make regular pension contributions, Kim said, securing their future financial security will be a particular challenge.

Solutions are often drawn along ideological lines. Where one school of thought tends toward direct government assistance, the other emphasizes economic growth in the hope of lifting living standards for all.

A 1998 paper by the KDI attributed a reduction in the absolute poverty rate from almost 41 percent of households in 1965 to 7.6 percent in 1991 to economic growth.

Another study by the Harvard Institute for International Development in 1997 concluded that 10 percent GDP growth results in an equal rise in income for the poorest 40 percent of the population. The study’s authors cited the experience of Korea as generally supporting this thesis.

Other factors have been shown to contribute to the reduction of poverty.

“Growth with Equity: Policy Lessons from the Experience of the Republic of Korea,” a paper from the KDI, estimates that “3.2 percentage points out of 5.9 percent real per capita income growth during 1960-1985 can be explained by educational achievement.”

The report goes on to state that educational opportunities should be increased for the poor to escape poverty.

Kim believes economic growth is far less important to alleviating poverty than government programs. Korea, he argues, should move toward the high-tax, universal-welfare model of the Scandinavian countries.

“As you see, our big companies like Samsung always make big a profit but we can never observe a trickle-down effect at all. They get everything. In that kind of economic world, it (growth) means nothing.”

Ewha Womans University professor and poverty researcher Sophie Lee agrees that economic growth cannot be the focus of poverty reduction policy.

“Korea now needs to move on from strongly believing that the trickle-down effect will still work, meaning that economic growth can be spread equally to reduce overall poverty. A more comprehensive welfare program is necessary, especially in Korea where the majority of work in the labor market is precarious,” said Lee.

While current welfare framework has the right components, said Koh, its reach and effectiveness need improvement.

“Basically, we have all the elements but the problems lies with the effectiveness of these programs. For example the unemployment insurance only covers a small part of the working population so I think we need to make efforts to expand coverage of these insurance programs and also need to increase the coverage of the public assistance programs,” he said.

In Kim’s view, however, boosting labor market participation and productivity in small domestic industries should be the priority of the government.

“We need greater emphasis on promoting labor market participation, especially of low-skilled laborers. … We are witnessing an increasing gap between various sectors, for example between the manufacturing sector and the service sector. And also we are seeing a widening gap between large corporations and small and medium-sized enterprises.

“The basic drive between this widening gap can be found in the productive growth in the manufacturing sector … while the domestic industries remain very uncompetitive because they are not exposed to foreign competition.”

Added to this, should be measures to train low-skilled workers, said Koh, who believes there is little the government can or should do about the size of the gap between the rich and poor itself.

“The government should make efforts to help low-skilled workers retrain themselves for example or to find better matches in the labor market. Currently the public employment service is rather weak … the spending, for example, is very small compared to other OECD countries.”

[The Korea Herald] Is domestic violence taken seriously in Korea?

The seemingly astronomical reported rates of domestic violence in Korea inspired this piece. While researching the article, I found it interesting to see how broadly domestic violence is defined, raising questions about the data behind the headlines. Such question are arguably worthy of a piece themselves. — John

By John Power

Domestic violence is often out of sight, occurring behind the closed doors of the family home. Nevertheless, national surveys on the issue suggest it happens with disturbing frequency.

According to the 2010 Korea National Survey of Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence, 53.8 percent of respondents who had been married had experienced spousal abuse in the previous year, and 16.7 percent had suffered physical abuse. Over the course of a marriage, the figures for physical abuse rose to 23.5 percent of respondents, with emotional abuse marking 50.7 percent, economic abuse 13.9 percent and sexual abuse 13.5 percent. For the purposes of the survey, spousal abuse was defined as including physical abuse, emotional abuse, economic abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and controlling behavior. The overall rate of abuse in 2010 was up from previous national surveys from 2004 and 2007.

Private affair?

Despite the stark figures, many working in the area such as Choi Yong-ji of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center believe that neither society nor the authorities take the issue seriously enough.

“In Korea, society considers violence inside the family as a personal issue, not society’s issue to consider … Our center’s opinion is that society should consider it more seriously and the police should react more promptly to the issue. And because how the wives or the people who suffer from that kind of violence, their suffering is so great, we cannot consider it as a personal issue,” Choi said.

According to the 2010 survey, carried out by Yonsei University Graduate School of Social Welfare, 51 percent of victims considered their abuse to be a mild family problem. According to the same survey, police told victims to solve the violence through dialogue in more than 50 percent of cases reported to them. In almost 18 percent of cases, the police did not even come to the scene.

“… Because of how Korea considers wives as a personal belonging sometimes … even these days when the wives call the police because of violence of the husband, the police may come but they listen to the husband’s opinion that it is just a personal issue so just go back,” said Choi.

With what she deems low rates of prosecution at present, Choi doesn’t support tougher punishment for perpetrators. Instead, she believes, the culture of silence and acceptance of familial violence has to change.

New powers

The last year, however, has seen significant legal changes in how the authorities respond to reports of domestic violence. At the start of the month, police responding to reports of abuse gained new powers to enter homes without permission. This followed a revision in October allowing police to impose on-the-spot restraining orders.

“It has been pointed out the police’s intervention has not been positively done at the early stages of violence because family violence has been thought of as a light quarrel between husband and wife, and the institutional and legal foundation that allows police to actively intervene has been unsatisfactory,” the Ministry for Gender Equality and Family said in a statement.

“With these institutional improvements, police who respond to a report of family violence, to protect the victim, can positively take emergency measures, by entering the scene, ensuring the safety of the victim and investigating the conditions of violence.”

The ministry also said it has provided domestic violence awareness training to more than 2,000 police officers as of last year.

Han-kyun Kim, the director for research strategy at the Korean Institute of Criminology, accepts that there is an issue with the police response to domestic violence. But he rejects the suggestion that the matter is not taken seriously once it makes the courts.

“Some misunderstand that the Korean justice system does not treat the issue seriously, due to its traditional Confucian or paternalistic culture,” said Kim.

“It is true that criminal laws have their limitation in intervening in all domestic violence, as some of it may be a private matter. However, all international standards and norms Korea has ratified, its constitution, and special laws, such as the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment of Crimes of Domestic Violence of 2011 and Act of the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Protection of Victims of 2010, declare domestic violence a crime, and punish the offenders as deserved.”

Short of support

But even where abuse is taken seriously, support to help victims may come up short. Lee Mi-jeong, a researcher at Korean Women’s Development Institute, believes the current services available for victims are not sufficient.

“Based on the (domestic violence) law (passed) in 1997, the government provides shelters and counseling centers for the victims of domestic violence. But the resident shelter is quite limited; I think it is only six months. If the victim really needs to stay there the victim can have an extension. But the point is nowadays … once the violence happens, women get out of the house with their children, so they need some stable place to live in,” said Lee, adding that she supports recent government moves to help more victims stay in their own homes.

But she acknowledges that huge progress has been made in facing the problem, describing the passage of the 1997 law as a “revolutionary point.”

“In the meantime the attitude toward domestic violence has changed over time. I agree that, as we see in crime incidents nowadays, still the response of the policy is not enough. But if I observe over a long time span, it has been improved and it has been improving,” she said.

Lee also noted that women are not the only victims, despite common perceptions. Men and children also suffer abuse, although, in the case of the former, she said, the physical injuries sustained tend to be less severe. While there is a hotline for male victims of domestic violence in Korea, there are currently no shelters.

Broad definitions

The 2010 survey does not break down victims by gender, but last year there were 189 arrests for abuse of husbands, according to police figures. The figure for wives was 4,481. But even how domestic violence is defined can be contentious, with, for example, leaving a child alone in a room and yelling both classified as “psychological violence,” while treating a spouse with indifference constitutes “neglect” and therefore domestic violence.

“In Korea, the women’s movement started with this hotline for women victims,” said Lee. “They created a hotline for women battered by their husbands. The target group was wives. But in the meantime, as the government tried to help these victims, the target group extended. People tend to think that victims of domestic violence are women but that is not always true. We (also) need to think about the victims of domestic violence among children and adolescents.”

Violence against children, in particular, is culturally acceptable, Lee contends.

“If parents are in control it is OK, but many times this beating happens out of emotional outrage on the part of parents. I think violence against children is widespread in Korea. I think people do not perceive it seriously and also the children or adolescents themselves tend to take it naturally. I think that is a problem,” she said.

Lee stressed the magnitude of the problem of familial violence with an uncomfortable observation.

“You have a higher chance of getting hit within a family boundary than by a stranger outside.”

[The Korea Herald] Does Korea have enough Internet freedom?

South Koreans often point out that they have one of most the Internet-connected societies in the world.

More contentious is just how free the country’s Internet users are to use it as they choose. Korea made Reporters Without Borders’ “Enemies of the Internet” list for a fourth straight year on March 12, alongside the likes of Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Eritrea and the United Arab Emirates as a country “under surveillance,” the category before “enemy.”

The report noted that removal-of-content requests by the president-appointed, nine-member Korea Communications Standards Commission have soared since its establishment in 2008. Such requests to Internet service providers, backed by the threat of fines for noncompliance, rose from about 1,500 annually before 2009 to 80,449 in 2010. Reasons for removal included content being deemed defamatory, obscene, or damaging to national security.

Park Kyung-shin, a commissioner as well as critic of the KCSC, paints a grim picture of Internet censorship in one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies.

“Recently, the prosecutors’ office arrested a Twitter user who merely retweeted North Korean propaganda with his parodic comments. This is how intensive the regulation is, even without the KCSC. The same with obscenity. As to the protection of children, it should be parents’ responsibility not administrative bodies whose across-the-board or self-identifying rules always restrict adults’ free speech,” Park said Voice.

Park says that the right to free expression online is particularly important in this country.

“Korea is a very hierarchical society. Internet has provided the rare opportunity for people to communicate with one another on equal terms. Korea will lose an opportunity for social and cultural advancement if Internet freedom is lost,” he said.

Park himself became a target of his own commission over his blog highlighting the kind of content the KCSC regularly seeks to remove. The offending material was a non-pornographic picture of a man’s genitalia. Park has since been indicted by the prosecution on obscenity charges he believes are politically motivated.

The KCSC declined to answer questions on a number of issues including its handling of Park’s case, its justification for “censoring online content” and the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression’s strong criticism of Internet censorship here.

In a statement to The Korea Herald, the Korea Communications Commission, a government body distinct from the KCSC that sets communications policy, addressed rapportuer Frank La Rue’s criticism.

“The Korean government is very firm about its efforts to protect freedom of expression as well as efforts to minimize restrictions on freedom of expression. … The report was biased because it only took into account special cases and as a result the report evaluated Korea’s freedom of expression in a biased way. La Rue’s report seems to lack an appreciation of Korea’s special characteristics of the Internet regulation environment and review system,” said a spokesman.

The spokesman also noted that the Constitutional Court had recently upheld the constitutionality of Korea’s regulatory framework.

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Lee Kye-cheol, the new chief of the Korea Communications Commission’ speaks at his inauguration in Seoul earlier this month. (Yonhap News)

After being sent a revised list of questions, KCSC spokesman Han Tae-seon defended the body’s role in safeguarding against harmful content, denying that it impinges upon freedom of expression.

“Although people are free to express themselves, they should not use profanities or distort the truth because this may harm public discourse,” Han said.

“Freedom of expression is a constitutional right and so it is not a question of ‘striking a balance.’ Nothing we review or restrict is to violate the right to freedom of expression.”

Han added that the KCSC does not censor content, but merely makes requests of websites and Internet providers, some of which are not followed. As evidence of this, he pointed to a 2008 KCSC request, put to him by The Korea Herald, that a website “purify language and refrain from exaggerated expressions” over a message calling President Lee “2MB” and a “sly person.” “2MB” refers to President Lee’s initials, but can also be interpreted as a derogatory reference to his intelligence.

“We sent a request to the caf manager and it was up to him to decide how they would respond, but as far we know after we checked the posting again little had been changed,” Han said.

He said that particular request had been made on the grounds of “other necessary measures,” as provided by the law governing Internet content.

Furthermore, the KCSC, he said, is highly transparent in its decision making.

“The review process is available on our homepage, and members of the public can sit in on our deliberations except in cases of defamation,” Han said.

But critics such as Oh Byoungil, a staff coordinator at Jinbonet, a left-leaning organization for Internet freedom, question the need for a body that has been “misused by the powerful to suppress criticism,” including negative postings about former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and other pro-government figures.

Rather, the Jinbonet coordinator believes that the Internet community should be allowed to regulate itself.

“I don’t think we need an administrative body to regulate the internet. Are there any other countries in which the administrative body can regulate the internet? Self-regulation by the Internet community or ISP can be one solution to regulate the content harmful to minors. If the content is illegal, it can be regulated by the court. However, the KCSC has regulated even content which is not illegal, and it’s not a competent body to decide illegality of the content,” he said.

The removal and blocking of content is not the only threat to Internet freedom, say activists. The real-name system, which forces online users to supply their name and Resident Registration Number when posting on websites with more than 100,000 daily visitors, has been controversial since its introduction in 2007. The rule came in for renewed criticism last year after the personal details of 35 million Cyworld users were stolen by hackers last July. In December, the KCC announced it would phase out the system by 2014.

Critics also complain of political bias when it comes to what is restricted and why.

“It is not just the KCSC, but all administrative entities are charged with the direct or indirect mandate of upholding the policy goals of the democratically elected head of the state,” said Park, who is also a lawyer.

“However, such a mandate, if applied to the free speech area, is deemed unconstitutional. Korea relies heavily upon administrative bodies whose role has been challenged as politically and culturally biased. Administrative bodies should stay out of areas concerning freedom of speech.”

Han rejects any suggestion that the KCSC is open to political bias or manipulation.

“(The law) states that the commission should not be influenced by outside interference or special favors. By following this law we are following our political neutrality.”

[The Korea Herald] Is Seoul’s student rights ordinance good policy?

The subject of education exercises Korean society like few other topics. A student rights ordinance passed by the Seoul education office became a major clash point between conservatives and liberals in early 2012. — John.

By John Power

In an election year, little can be considered above ideological conflict. Education is no exception.

An ordinance on student rights, passed by Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education late last month, is the latest source of controversy within an education system recently rocked by extreme bullying and student suicides.

Liberal superintendent Kwak No-hyun, returning to work after being fined for bribery during his 2010 election campaign, proclaimed the passage of the Ordinance for Students’ Human Rights as a “historic event.” The Ministry of Education Science and Technology, teachers’ groups and many conservatives see it differently. Arguing that the ordinance will lead to confusion within schools and strip teachers of authority, the Education Ministry has taken the case to the Supreme Court to have it overturned.

“I can say that we sympathize with the spirit of the ordinance, that we understand student rights already exist in the Constitution and law. (But) the Ministry of Education is afraid the ordinance might hinder or restrict school autonomy in Seoul. Because it stresses only students’ rights, not students’ responsibilities. We think they should put a more balanced rights and responsibilities (approach in place),” an Education Ministry official who did not wish to be named told Voice.

The ordinance, which bans corporal punishment and discrimination against homosexual and pregnant students, and allows students to protest on school grounds and choose their own hairstyle and dress, follows similarly controversial decrees in Gyeonggi Province and Gwangju Metropolitan City, also in the name of students’ human rights.

Jung Un-soo, International coordinator of the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Association, campaigned for an ordinance on student rights in the early 1990s. But he said the ordinance passed by SMOE has little to do with the cause he fought for.

“ … This policy is clearly something driven by a political agenda regarding the organizational gains involved in the election of provincial superintendents, and with no regards to the actual human rights of students,” Jung said.

Jung said the KFTA is firmly against the “deceptive” ordinance on judicial and pragmatic grounds as well as out of concern for students.

Civic activists protest the student rights ordinance in Seoul. (Yonhap News)

“If someone in the school discriminates against students or violates their human rights, they can be punished by law. So to insist that this ordinance is necessary to protect human rights of students is a total lie. Moreover, we are giving each school the right to enact and amend its regulations according to the ‘Enforcement Decree of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’ so schools can restrict the freedom of some students in cases to protect the human rights of other students. But this ordinance is limiting the rights of individual schools ― and its students ― to decide their rights and responsibilities on their own.”

Jung further objects to the way the measure was passed. He has particularly harsh words for the Seoul head of education, convicted of bribing an electoral rival to drop out of the race for the post.

“Superintendent Kwak has been convicted for bribery with the highest fine allowed in the law. This sentence makes the election invalid. The reason Kwak is not out of his post is that there was an appeal to the higher court. But someone who was already convicted for bribery in the first trial, and who was clearly involved in the corruption of an election, can’t be a chief of education. What shall children learn from him? They will learn that you can be a superintendent through bribery if you have 200 million won. That’s what the students are saying nowadays in schools.

“What Kwak has to do now is not to enforce his election pledges, or political deals in other words. What he has to do is to step down from his post, and say sorry for the corruption of the election and the harm he has caused in the schools. That is what an educator should do. He is now just revealing that he is no kind of educator but just a political fraud.”

But Chang Suh-yeon, of Gong-Gam Korean Public Interest Lawyers’ Group, said that Kwak’s conviction is a separate issue from the ordinance.

“The bribery is not directly related to the ordinance. It was the opinion of 97,000 Seoul citizens (who signed a petition) who wanted the ordinance enacted, so it was through a legal procedure that it was possible,” Chang said.
Chang said that student rights have been ignored for too long in schools across the nation, resulting in an abnormally high suicide rate among students. The issue of school violence and its possible effects became a topic of national conversation after details of a Daegu student’s suicide note became public in December.

“I can’t understand how people could be against something as self-evident as ‘all students have the right to be free from violence,’” Chang said. “In 1991, Korea joined the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, and according to article 6 of the Constitution, the U.N. convention should have the same weight as national law. The U.N. committee on children has demanded that all corporal punishment be banned by law and they advised the Korean government this on several occasions. In this and day age it doesn’t make any sense that a teacher should use corporal punishment as discipline.”

For Chang, it is also important to allow students express their individuality.

“All human beings have the right to express themselves but due to the militarized culture resulting from Japanese colonialism, students have been forced to abide by a strict dress and hairstyle code. Is school the army? (In any case) with the current ordinance, uniform, unlike hair, can be regulated by individual schools,” she said.

But others such as Jung fear that class discipline will break down without rules and adequate methods of punishment.

“The provisions regarding school dress is one of the typical provisions showing the problem of this ordinance. On the surface it is to protect the freedom of students. But the actual result of banning all school uniforms is causing discrimination based on economic status. These days there are even ‘classes’ in classrooms divided by the price of the overcoats of students. So this is violating their right of equality. And it is contradictory to the provisions regarding discrimination,” said Jung.

“The more serious problem is that the ordinance is saying ‘Students are free from all violence,’ and this sounds good. But the reality is that students are more suffering from violence because the ordinance is tying the hands of teachers who want to help students in school violence situations by forbidding all kind of physical intervention and immediate discipline ― even non-physical guidance also.”

The battle for the future of the capital’s education shows few signs of abating. But for now the fate of the ordinance lies with the Supreme Court, which could make a ruling before the end of the month.

“I don’t think the case will be successful because the ordinance does not go against any law,” said Chang. “The ordinance was proposed by the Seoul citizens and passed by the Seoul government, and the Education Ministry going against it is damaging to the local government.”

[The Korea Herald] Does Confucianism have a role in Korea today?

I enjoyed researching this article as the role of Confucianism in Korean society is a common subject of debate among foreigners living in Korea. It is also a subject that seems to provoke very emotional responses at times. The idea for the piece came from a long term Korea expatriate. — John.

By John Power

The teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius have had a profound influence on South Korea. So much so, that the nation is sometimes referred to as the most Confucian society on earth.

An emphasis on family, personal betterment and respect for age and authority continue to feature highly in Korean life to this day, some 2,500 years after the philosopher’s death.

Ethicist and director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University, Tu Weiming is adamant Confucianism still has much to offer a modern society such as Korea.

“Confucianism is arguably the most comprehensive and integrated humanism in world history. It is also one of the most important and significant rational ways of learning to be human among all Axial-Age Civilizations, namely Greek philosophy, Judaism ― by implication Christianity and Islam ― Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. It offers Korea the ‘core values’ that will make her a standard of moral excellence in the developing as well as the developed world,” Tu said.

Tu says that key values set it apart from Western notions of ethics such as “The Golden Rule.”

“Just to name two of these values: the spirit of humanity ― sympathy and compassion ― and the practice of reciprocity. I would argue that the Confucian idea of reciprocity is more congenial to inter-religious and dialogue among civilizations.”

Tu even argues that Confucian values of the common good and hard work without immediate reward contributed to Korea’s rapid recovery from the 2009 financial crisis. In 2010, the country grew its economy by 6 percent while most of the developed world remained stagnant or saw negative growth.

“Similar examples can be found in other Confucian societies, such as Japan and Singapore. In all these societies, the leadership ― often the collaboration between the political and business elite ― can mobilize the whole society ― including the labor and the citizens ― to deal with the national crisis as a collective enterprise. This phenomenon is difficult to imagine in many contemporary societies such as USA, England, France, or Greece,” Tu said.

Hahm Chai-bong, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of “Confucianism for the Modern World,” agrees that Confucianism has been instrumental in Koreans’ propensity to rally around a common cause.

“Back in 1997 when the Asian financial crisis hit, we had Koreans giving up gold. The huge spectacle of people lining up in the streets and giving up their gold because they thought our country was going under. We still sort of contrast that with how the Greeks or the Italians or the Spaniards are responding to their financial crisis where they just simply blame politicians and others. You really cannot explain that without Confucianism, where that sense of economic nationalism comes from or the sense that this nation is all on the same boat,” Hahm said.

He also believes the philosophy’s rigorous ethical standards have largely been a positive influence on the nation, despite numerous past and present improprieties in the political and business worlds.

“Confucianism still requires a lot from people in power or authority. That has really served us quite well and it has been a major source of social development and political development in society,” Hahm said.

But Confucianism has its critics, with charges against it ranging from its view of women to its reinforcement of hierarchies, whether deserving or not. In “Outliers,” author Malcolm Gladwell cited deference toward superiors, a Confucian trait deeply embedded in Korean culture, as a major factor in Korean Air having one of the world’s worst safety records from 1988-1998.

“Confucianism began with so little mobility of households et al, and it relies on an unchanging hierarchy, women come up short in almost all relationships,” said Jerome F. Keating, a former professor at National Taipei University and the author of the paper “The Dark side of Confucianism.”

“The 21st century has a growing sense of democracy; even the Arab Spring senses this, where people want the right to choose their leaders and they don’t want to depend on the ‘benevolence’ of those above. Technically, Confucianism relegates responsibility up and down the ladder, but that is more honored in the breach than reality.”

To Keating, Confucianism is largely ill-suited to modern life.

“With any philosophy, religion, ideology you have to examine it from the standpoint of the world for which it set about presenting answers to living. Confucianism was constructed for an agricultural based society and economy: note the low rank given to businessmen at the bottom of the ladder ― how that has changed. That is one of the issues I see. The world of today is not that agriculturally based, it is a globalized society where people are very mobile and the majority of workers make money differently.”

While traces of the philosophy can be found in the earliest records of the Korean Peninsula, its influence grew considerably from the 14th century onward during the Joseon Dynasty. By the 1500s, Neo-Confucianism had come to dominate thought and social mores in the kingdom, largely due to the influence of Yi Hwang and Yi I, the two most prominent scholars of the time who appear today on the 1,000 and 5,000 won notes.

Confucianism emphasizes harmony and the importance of family, recognizing that, in Tu’s words, “the family is indispensable for human survival and flourishing.” Accordingly, societies influenced by the tradition such as Korea, Japan and Taiwan tend to have enviably low levels of violent crime and family breakdown. Keating argues, however, that such positive social indicators shouldn’t be taken at face value.

“In Taiwan, and I am sure in other Asian countries, incest and abuse and rape by uncles, etc. goes unreported because of the shame factor in preserving family image. Similarly I have noted that there is no lessening of extra-marital affairs, etc. Family stays together but at what price? In the West, we call a mistress a mistress. In Asia it gets a (euphemistic) phrase like sciau tai-tai (little wife). You are dealing with cultures where image and face rank higher than honesty and straightforwardness,” he said.

Hahm, too, acknowledges the philosophy’s limitations, noting that the strict dictates of Confucianism are often at odds with the reality of morally weak people.

“Because it is such a highly set standard people try to sometimes shirk it, sometimes to circumvent it. It also leads to a lot of hypocrisy, which leads to a terrible deal of widespread cynicism in society, a sense of betrayal,” Hahm said.

Not only is the ethical bar high, it is distinct from other societies, adds Hahm.

“They are different standards as well. Something like a Lewinsky scandal, I don’t think any Korea politician could survive something like that. So in that sense we have a much higher standard than the western societies where they think that’s a private issue, it’s a private affair as long as the guy is doing OK as a president, that’s what we should worry about, not so much what kind of private life that person has. It’s the kind of distinction Koreans still fail to make.”

Hahm doesn’t advocate a societal return to Confucianism. But he believes where it could be most relevant today is as a counterweight to other modes of thought.

“I think what (role) Confucianism can play, or any kind communitarian traditional order value system can do, is sort of (be) a mitigating factor in whatever excesses individualism in society might create.”