[INSIGHT] Corruption, Refined Over 100 Years

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[INSIGHT] Corruption, Refined Over 100 Years

A British visitor's observation of corruption in the Choson dynasty still holds up today.

Isabella Bird Bishop, a British traveler and the first woman member of the Royal Geographical Society, visited Korea four times about 100 years ago. During her visits, she took a ferryboat on the Han River to travel to Danyang and Chunchon and even rode a pony to Mt. Kumgang. She attracted throngs of people wherever she went, for she presented a rare sight: a Western woman with blue eyes. Some of the more curious Korean women touched her cheeks and hair, and a few even tried to peek under her skirt.

While the people of the late Choson Dynasty were gawking and poking at her, Ms. Bishop was scrutinizing the kingdom, and her scathing observations are documented in her book, "Korea and Her Neighbors." She noted the omnipresent poverty, laziness and depression, and the persecution of commoners by the ruling class. She recounted her shock upon seeing commoners working without wages, forced into virtual slavery to pay off debts. She said government offices were teeming with parasites sucking the life out of the nation, official positions were openly traded, and winning concessions through abuse of power was a common occurrence. She perceived Korean society as an overwhelmingly corrupt one, centered on the ruling class and government officials.

One hundred years have passed since Ms. Bishop's last visit to Korea. If she could come again, how would she compare today's society to the past?

She is hardly likely to make a positive evaluation, judging by the results of a survey the Seoul Institute for Transparency at the Seoul City University conducted of 108 businessmen in Seoul. In the survey, 80.5 percent of the respondents said it is difficult to succeed in Korea without currying favor with those in power, 90.7 percent said falling out of favor with those in power means being subject to disadvantages, and 87 percent said power takes precedence over the law. Moreover, 60 percent said contributions to politicians are a kind of investment, 68 percent said bribes always work in dealings with the government and 65 percent said running a business is impossible without entertaining and bribing public officials.

Ms. Bishop would surely moan, because the parasites that swarmed around government offices 100 years ago still abound in the "people's government" today. Her disappointment would be more acute upon learning of the recent string of corruption scandals.

What would she think of the illegal diversion of 100 billion won from the spy agency to finance the election campaigns of a former ruling party, and the charges of a former president, who himself is heavily implicated in the misappropriation of the state funds, that the incumbent president managed slush funds? And what of politicians' shameless attempts to keep their political funds off-limits while introducing an anti-money laundering bill?

The government and the ruling party stress the importance of observing "law and principles" ?an imperative that must precede efforts to eradicate deeply rooted corruption to build a clean society. This is the one reform task that has to succeed even if all others fail.

But their calls for law and principles ring as hollow as echoes. Could it be due to their blatant defiance of law and principles while urging everyone else to comply?

Try as we may, it is difficult to equate the ruling party's behavior with law and principles. It locked up the parliamentary speaker to thwart the opposition's bid to impeach the prosecution, and came up with the novel idea of "lending" its lawmakers to the minor United Liberal Democrats to reestablish their alliance. Its call for law and principle does not carry any weight, not when it flaunts them to resort to all kinds of tricks and expedients. Then there is the illegal loan case involving Hanvit Bank, which the prosecution concluded was a simple loan scam but the court saw as a power-backed corruption case. The court actually confirmed public suspicions that the prosecution avoids touching those in power. That the sharp sword of restructuring somehow becomes blunted whenever it comes upon the Hyundai Group proves that "law and principles" are managed without any principles.

The same is true of the tax audits into news media companies. No controversy would ensue if the investigations were routine and based on normal procedures. Suspicions that the audits are an attempt to tame the media grew after the disclosure of documents showing that the ruling party named those media it deemed to be hostile to the government. Such incidents give ample evidence to spark suspicion that the law and principles dance to the tune of the government to suit its arbitrary needs.

In its verdict on Hanvit Bank's loan scandal, the court said that power had taken precedence over the law and that instructions or requests for favors by those holding the reins of power superceded principles and regulations. If she could visit Korea again, Ms. Bishop would most certainly issue a harsh warning to strictly follow the law and principles.

writer -----------------------------------------------------------------------

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Heo Nam-chin

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