[VIEWPOINT]Confessing to purge our societyRecently, one presidential candidate confessed that he accepted money from a well-known politician but did not report it to the National Election Commission. His confession earned him the praises of both the ruling party and the opposition party, although the contribution was in clear violation of the regulations on political donations. Nevertheless, the commission and the prosecutors office are taking their time, not wanting to make the wrong move in sensitive times.
Contrary to the praise for the confession, which was called a "pure" act, the source of the money is busy defending his actions, saying the money came from earnings his wife made from her restaurant. The story made people laugh, as did another by a candidate for the National Election Commission, defending his son's possession of a large amount of money with the lame excuse that he collected the cash through donations at his wedding.
Not too long ago, the Federation of Korean Industries announced publicly that it would not make any illegal political contributions, and it said that politicians should confess to receiving such money, making them eligible for pardon. In other words, they should admit, to no one's surprise, that illegal contributions had been made. But why wait for the confession of the guilty? The contributors themselves should come forward and disclose the amount of money that has been spread around. Perhaps, to provide motivation, the government should take the first step by guaranteeing exemption from prosecution for such politicians and businesses.
An exemption from prosecution in exchange for admitting the crime is probably the right solution for rampant illegal campaign contributions. This situation, in which illegal practices are deeply rooted in the social structure, is close to the "Nash balance" proposed by John Forbes Nash Jr., whose story has been made recently into a movie, "A Beautiful Mind." In a Nash balance no one wants to make the first move to break the balance, being afraid of becoming subject to the negative effects. Hence, the impasse continues. Under such circumstances the government has to step in since it has nothing to lose.
Amnesty will help create a critical mass to cut ties with the past and adapt to a situation to which the majority follows. If only a limited number of people are prosecuted, some of them will complain that they are scapegoats or just unlucky. In a situation where many people are involved in illegalities for a prolonged period of time, a general amnesty might be the most suitable action.
Historically, amnesty has been used in a wide array of cases, ranging from tax evasion to treason. The government has granted amnesty in various cases: possession of illegal arms, resident registration law violations, illegal loan businesses, bankruptcies of farmers and fishermen, immigration law violations of foreign workers, etc.
Nevertheless, conditions should be established before granting pardons. First, the illegality has to be widely spread.
Second, whether intended or not whoever is involved has to confess all. If one tries to conceal any wrongdoings the punishment should be even more severe. A clear difference between a confession and whistle-blowing should be made.
Third, the guilty party must show regret and promise never to commit another crime.
Finally, the authorities must emphasize clearly that only one opportunity will be given for the rotten to salvage their souls. If too many pardons are given, people might get the impression that if they wait long enough, another chance for amnesty will come.
To make people confess now, the penalty, if the infraction is discovered at a later date, should be set at the harshest level. In addition, the statute of limitations for prosecution should be lengthened to dampen any hopes of outliving the punishment for a crime. A promise of amnesty should be accompanied by a credible threat.
Going into the election season, I urge the government to take the necessary steps to take full advantage of this opportunity to cure our country's longstanding problem once and for all. If we miss this opportunity, we might have to wait a long time before we find another opportunity like this one.
This is a golden opportunity to clean up our political climate. I sincerely hope that our newly established Korea Independent Commission Against Corruption will make the right decision for our future.
The writer is a professor of public administration at Sungkyunkwan University.
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