Our Value System Needs to Be Rewired

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Our Value System Needs to Be Rewired

The Fight Against Corruption Must Be Wide-Ranging, Firm, Consistent and Relentless

I wrote an article entitled "Society''s All-Out War Against Corruption" in the JoongAng Ilbo sometime ago. In that article, I expressed my concern about the way corruption runs through our society like a viral outbreak. I said that all citizens have to reflect on their own complicity in creating a society where corrupt practices go unchecked at almost every level. I said that they must rewire their value system.

Since then, the government announced an anti-corruption war, and President Kim Dae-jung stressed the importance of a final showdown with corruption. It was, of course, a coincidence that the campaign came shortly after my article was printed. The government probably had been preparing its plans well in advance.

The corruption in our society is not a scourge limited to the political and government sectors, however. It is endemic and prevalent in every stratum of the society. Businesses are afflicted. So is the educational sector whose job is to mold our future society. Religious groups are no exception. The cancer of corruption has taken over every element of our society.

There is no hope for further national development under the current structure where corruption is allowed to metastasize unrestrained. There is even a lesser chance of achieving our goal of developing into a truly developed country.

This is why we have to pursue the anti-corruption war with a grim determination of a fight to the death.

We achieved the "Miracle on the Han" in the late 20th century, when Korea developed economically at an astonishing rate. We cannot sink to being a straggler in the 21st century history.

But the public is showing a cynical and pessimistic response to the government''s plan to crack down on corruption even before it begins. It is unfortunate that the government''s punishment of the offenders should be at the core of the fight against corruption.

A government crackdown is one of the effective means of winning the war against corruption, but it is also apt to instill a feeling of deja vu, since every past administration has used crackdowns as a political tactic to deflect attention from its own corruption. The tactic can also raise suspicions that the government used it as a political weapon to muzzle the opposition and increase its own power. The public must participate and cooperate if an anti-corruption drive is to succeed. Put simply, the government must convince the citizenry that an anti-corruption campaign is not a short-term measure but an ongoing process backed by systemic controls.

The war against corruption must be multilateral and comprehensive. Punishment is not enough. Every citizen has to adopt a new set of values. The nation''s education must change. Administration of state affairs must be more transparent, and there has to be a legal framework for dealing with corrupt individuals through impartial and strict application of the law.

Religious groups, schools of all levels, the media and civic groups have important roles in exploring the depth of corruption and in recognizing and denouncing their own complicity.

In the long term, education must be fundamentally reformed to instill ethical values in our children so that they can regard corruption with the contempt it deserves.

The legal system has to be revamped to curb the temptation to commit corruption and to make government work more transparently. One way to achieve these goals would be to review laws that operate in ways that can lead to corruption and amend or abolish them.

It is also important for an anti-corruption drive to focus on one''s own collusion in corruption before pointing a finger at others.

How many among us are truly blameless? But we cannot wash our hands of the battle against corruption with the excuse that we are not perfect either.

We have to stay focused on preventing future corruption rather than on punishing acts committed in the past.

Criticizing past practices can be a good guide if our emphasis is more on reforming ourselves than on punishing others.

When the government cracks down on corruption in our society, it has to sharpen the knife it wields against ruling party members and the top echelons of power, such as presidential aides, instead of just the opposition and lower ranking officials. Only then will the public respond. The anti-corruption drive will not succeed if the public suspects the government of biased investigations that allow powerful figures to go scot-free.

Most importantly, the anti-corruption campaign has to be ongoing. Short-lived public campaigns and punishments cannot transform the values of government officials and citizens. Experience shows us that transient campaigns have almost no effect in rooting out corruption.

To be effective, corrupt persons regardless of their social position have to be hunted down consistently and continuously and punished strictly according to the letter of the law.

Government efforts alone are not enough to win the fight against corruption. A victory is questionable even if the political parties put aside their partisan interests and unite with the public in the fight. The government must first create the atmosphere for all members of the society to join enthusiastically in the battle against corruption.

The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Seong Byong-wook

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