Society's Complicity in CorruptionAge-Old Practices Die Hard, Fighting Corruption Is an Ongoing Process
In Korean society tolerance for corruption is endemic. The so-called "Miracle of Han" during the past 40 years, when Korea developed at a remarkable rate, has been discredited and dishonored by the destruction of values and the unethical and immoral practices that have no place in a modern economy. Such practices may have been tolerated － in the name of pragmatism － in the initial stages of economic development, but it will be impossible to achieve the goal of developing into an advanced country if the status quo, characterized by rampant corruption, bribery and immorality, is allowed to go unchecked.
In the past, leaders of the democracy movement attributed corruption to the cost of maintaining regimes who came to power through illegitimate means. How then can we account for the continuance of corruption under democratically elected, legitimate governments?
Bureaucrats, businessmen, politicians and members of the press have all been implicated in corruption scandals. But, in point of fact, corruption runs through our society like a viral outbreak, infecting almost every sector of society, from middle school teachers to the highest echelons of power. The Hanvit loan scandal involving a former minister and the illegal loan and bribery involving the president of a venture firm and the financial watchdog, are emblematic of a problem that is institutionalized in our society.
Since the end of last year, the nation was feverishly pursuing the venture capital boom and investing in the over-the-counter KOSDAQ market. But high expectations for wads of won in the form of stock windfalls were dashed by early this year, and showed, in retrospect, that the boom was a bubble, that grew with quixotic speculation, and was burst by the pin of reality. Some venture companies succeeded in raising hundreds of billions, or trillions of won after the value of their shares went through the roof, despite the lack of any tangible technology innovations or resultant profits from or production of next generation products. The fund managers, bureaucrats, politicians and financial and brokerage executives who colluded or assisted in the process reportedly attained wealth. But it was the small-time investors who got on the bandwagon at the last minute that lost their shirts, and the financial institutions that had to cover the losses. The government seems bent on making up the deficits piled up at financial institutions with public funds, i.e., taxpayers'' money.
We cannot hope to properly educate our children and sustain national development if the cancer of corruption continues to metastasize throughout society. Corruption is no longer just a national scourge, it is a matter of international concern. An international agreement on prevention of bribery took effect in February last year, making corruption a highly important factor that holds sway over a nation''s continued membership of the international economic community.
The situation is all the more serious when we think of the reunification of the nation and the Korean people, which could take place in the not-too-distant future. We cannot hope to take the initiative in the reunification process, or lead in the post-reunification era, if the current corrupt practices go unchanged. Corruption is also reportedly rampant in North Korea, but because of the nature of its rule, the country remains relatively unencumbered by the need to change. In contrast, the corruption in democratic South Korea exacerbates social disintegration and dissension.
We have to cut out the cancer of corruption for the development and prosperity of the nation and for eventual reunification. President Kim Dae-jung and political leaders have to figure out how best to combat corruption. Every citizen need to reflect on their own complicity in a system that, with a wink and a nod, accepts corrupt practices on almost every level. They too need to rewire their value system and reject corrupt practices.
National policymakers have to place a priority on fighting corruption and on securing transparency in state affairs so that anti-corruption education and campaigns can be sustained. Pan-national efforts and the participation of society at-large, from religious groups, schools, to the media and civic groups, are needed to carry out successful campaigns to establish an honest and clean society.
Just as important is establishing a legal framework for dealing with corrupt individuals through impartial and strict application of the rule of law. How can we prevent corruption when prosecutors are suspected of conducting biased investigations and letting the powerful off the hook. Every citizen has to be aware of the harsh consequences of violating the law. It is also urgent to perfect the laws and systems to eliminate the potential for corruption. We have to enact more anti-corruption laws, create a powerful corruption fighting apparatus, and amend the laws on political funds to eliminate the potential for corrupt acts by politicians.
Total eradication of corruption is an unrealistic goal － and public campaigns, while noble, are simply not enough. Fighting corruption is an ongoing process that has to continue until every act of administration and transaction is governed by the rule of law, and every citizen regards corruption with the contempt it deserves. Those in power must take the lead and show that integrity and transparency are not to be feared, but to be hailed.
The writer is a senior editorial writer of the Joongang Ilbo.
by Seong Byong-wook