One Scandal Too Many for Korea Governor's Bribery Arrest Last Friday and a June 30 Fire Coincide with Drafting of Anticorruption Laws

By Michael Baker, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 1999 | Go to article overview
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One Scandal Too Many for Korea Governor's Bribery Arrest Last Friday and a June 30 Fire Coincide with Drafting of Anticorruption Laws


Michael Baker, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


She complained about the boss to Dear Diary, and Lee Chang Dok became a national hero.

Documenting how she resisted bribes but eventually yielded to threats against her, Mrs. Lee reluctantly approved permits for a shoddily constructed summer camp that went up in flames late last month, killing 19 children and four adults. Her attempts to do right have inspired people around the country.

As the public grieves for the lost lives, ethics scandals have continued to plague the government. Last week a governor and his wife were arrested for accepting bribes. Together, these events are giving impetus to a nation struggling to put a stop to endemic corruption.

Months before the fire in Hwasung county, the government had already started drafting anticorruption legislation. President Kim Dae Jung was elected on a reform platform in 1997. Parliamentary debate is scheduled in coming weeks, and proponents will draw upon these examples to further their cause.

But South Koreans acknowledge that removing corruption may be a herculean task. Schoolteachers are known to accept money from parents who want "special attention" for their children (last year a class of elementary school children even rebelled against their corrupt teacher and tried to get her fired). Journalists demand hush money from people breaking the law instead of reporting the story (including the Sealand camp case, the camp owner alleges).

People are so accustomed to circumventing Korea's rafts of regulations with cash that many have come to believe that "following the law is very stupid," says Shin Ji Hye, a law student at Seoul National University. Too much red tape encourages an attitude of disgust for all the rules, good and bad, and underpaid bureaucrats come to depend on the income from allowing people to circumvent the rules.

The habit of paying a little "hurry up" money to bureaucrats is part of a larger cultural phenomenon of casual bribery, euphemistically cloaked in gift giving and the perception that to succeed, one must break the law. A recent newspaper poll found that 94 percent of respondents thought the rich and successful got that way by illegal means. Ninety-one percent said that being law-abiding is a disadvantage in South Korea.

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