[VIEWPOINT] Only Honesty Can Foster Societal Trust
Perjury and calumny poison mutual trust and promote inefficiency in Korea.
The following is an experience I will never forget.
When I was living in Cambridge, England, I went with my family by train to London for the weekend, but while in the city I lost the return portion of my round-trip ticket. I purchased another train ticket at a station in London, returned to Cambridge, and wrote a courteous letter under the guidance of station staff requesting a refund for the train ticket I had lost. Some time later, I received a check equivalent to the price of the train ticket along with a thank-you letter for using the train. Although it wasn't that much money, I felt that this action testified to the society of mutual trust in Britain that enabled it to become a competitive nation.
But what is the reality here in Korea? The Korean people have long been fed up with the inconsistency and verbal backtracking of our so-called social leaders. The bitterness I felt hearing witnesses at the National Assembly's public hearings testifying to the exact opposite of the truth is still fresh in my memory.
What is worse is that lies are in abundance even in the sacred space of courtrooms.
"I will speak the truth as it is, without evasion or addition, according to my conscience, and if I speak a falsehood, I will accept the penalty for having committed perjury."
The sentence above is the solemn oath given in a standing position by the witness in court before he testifies. Yet according to 1999 statistics, the number of public criminal cases under first trial in which the witnesses － who had sworn this oath in court － committed perjury, tallied 675. The number of criminal cases that were falsely reported to public officials or public offices in which falsehoods were fabricated in order to bring criminal charges and punishment against another person came to 1,456.
Compared to 1990, when the number of perjury cases was 491 and calumny cases came to 440, the number has increased approximately 1.4 times for perjury and 3.3 times for calumny in nine years.
Consequently, when judges handle a case, they face more difficulty in ascertaining facts than in interpreting the law. Koreans' tendency not to document in writing important transactions and exchanges due to their unfamiliarity with the law poses a great obstacle, but the greatest problem of all is that the witnesses who should speak only the truth freely tell falsehoods without any consciousness of guilt. In almost all civil cases, where the determination of facts is crucial to the outcome of the case, contradictory testimonies arise. Judges are hard-pressed to discriminate between fiction and fact.
So false testimony is a great obstruction to the realization of legal justice. But Korean judges have a tendency to show leniency toward punishment of perjury and calumny. Let's go back to those 1999 statistics. Among the 675 cases of perjury, 651 were convicted in the first trial. Of these, only 19.5 percent or 127 cases, received an immediate prison sentence. The rest received mild punishments such as suspended sentences and fines.
Of the 1,423 cases of calumny that resulted in a guilty verdict at the first trial, only 24.9 percent, 355 cases, received imprisonment with or without forced labor. The rest got off with suspended sentences and fines.
Telling falsehoods results in damage to the common interests of all members of society. Deceiving others in pursuit of selfish desires destroys the confidence of the community. A person who commits perjury may excuse himself by saying that he had no other choice but to do so, in order to be loyal to his colleagues. But lying for the sake of the gain of a narrow community can also be looked upon as a manifestation of selfishness.
From now on, we should perceive our lies, which we commit shamelessly, as the poisons of mutual distrust and inefficiency, affecting the entire society.
The writer is a lawyer at Kim & Chang Law Firm.
by Han Sang-ho