[FOUNTAIN]Bribery, like weeds, persists

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[FOUNTAIN]Bribery, like weeds, persists

Bribes have been a social problem since ancient Egypt in the 15th century B.C., according to a book called "Bribes," written by a U.S. federal judge, John Noonan, in 1984. The Egyptian kingdom defined bribes as "presents that distort a fair trial," and reprimanded those who distributed gifts for the purpose of avoiding prosecution.

The perception that bribes are inappropriate presents was shared by contemporaries of the ancient Egyptians in Eastern countries. Bribes are called noemul in Korean, which literally means "valuables individually circulated." Two basic Chinese characters that mean "shells" and "each" were put together to form the word noe. In other words, in the era when shells were circulating as currency, noemul meant "secretly exchanged presents." The English word "bribe" once also meant "a present" in the Middle Ages.

Regardless of the region, the premise that nobody dislikes presents is the basis for bribery. If gifts are objects given to express affection and respect without expectation of something in return, bribes are objects offered for exactly the opposite purpose.

We can learn from history that a society where bribery is prevalent is one where principles have ceased to guide, and thus is on the road to peril. Rulers everywhere and in every century have advocated a clean society where bribery would gain nothing.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an English philosopher, was forced to resign as Lord Chancellor for taking bribes from a person who was involved in a case presided over by Bacon. James I, the king of England, liked Bacon, but could not save him after he received bribes. Around the same time in the Joseon Dynasty in Korea, government officials who were found to have taken bribes were flogged, exiled or branded with three words that meant "a thief of government property" on their shoulders. There were cases where government officials were even executed for taking bribes. Notwithstanding those efforts to stop bribery, the Joseon Dynasty was destined to doom because those who were in a position to punish bribery were actually the biggest criminals.

An allegation that a powerful senior official received hefty bribes is stirring a controversy across Korea. The case is shocking in that the official took the bribes while he was in an office where he was responsible for monitoring corruption in the civil service. The case may indicate that the pillars propping up the current administration are decaying from their bases.

The writer is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok

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