[Viewpoint] Combating corruption

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[Viewpoint] Combating corruption

Prosecutors are increasingly cracking down as of late on corruption by public servants. The head of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education stepped down from the post after he was convicted of violating election laws. Several other heads of local governments, including Osan’s mayor, are also under investigation. The corruption and bribery scandals of past presidents’ relatives and their close aides have continued, and recently senior public servants have been accused of receiving rice farming subsidies in violation of the country’s laws. The corruption has spread widely across the nation’s officialdom.

In his Aug. 15 Liberation Day address, President Lee Myung-bak emphasized that law and order must be firmly established for Korea to make substantial progress. In other words, he implied that it will be impossible for Korea to become an advanced nation without rule of law.

According to reports issued by Transparency International, Korea’s rating has improved every year in this area.

And yet the country still lags behind some of its Asian neighbors such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. It also ranked in the bottom tier among the 30 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Today, Korea is one of the world’s 10 largest economies. It is therefore necessary to build a transparent nation to accommodate such a status. Unlawful use of power has led to a great deal of corruption among public servants in Korea. Whenever the administration changes, we see a slew of corruption and bribery scandals involving the former president’s family. This happens time and time again. Even after democratization, such scandals have continued. The nation’s poor internal monitoring and control systems, led by the Blue House, have helped create this environment.

These systems have not worked properly in regards to not only the family and relatives of presidents, but also to their aides and friends. That being the case, fair and stern law enforcement has been impossible. The unlawful acts of these parties have been tacitly accepted as lawful exercise of power under the justification of national governance.

The sluggish development of democratic politics also plays into this. In Korea, regionalism has ruled the political culture of the nation with an iron fist, where a political party is developed with a single political heavyweight at the center. Therefore, the country’s political structure has failed to evolve from the past practices of vassalage. Based on such political fellowship, a leader provides unreasonably deep political consideration to his or her group, leading to personnel appointments based on regionalism. That, eventually, has led to corruption and irregularities by public servants.

Most of all, society hasn’t fully embraced anti-corruption efforts. Confucian family culture is a key in Asia’s organizational culture, and such practices were transplanted into the political and public service cultures as well. In Korean society, turning a blind eye toward corruption has long been accepted as a social norm.

In 2004, the Roh Moo-hyun administration submitted a bill to the National Assembly to create a special investigation office that would handle corruption issues involving public servants. The ruling and opposition parties have failed to agree on the political independence of such an organ. The special investigative authority is targeting high-ranking public servants, which the existing system may not be able to approach. The very existence of such an authority itself can play a preventive role.

It is time to establish an independent investigative authority to root out corruption. To this end, the political independence of such an entity must be a precondition. Without it, the ruling and opposition parties won’t be able to reach an agreement, and the public won’t be able to fully trust the operation. Establishing an investigation authority may not be the best option, but it may reduce the irregularities and corruption in officialdom and improve transparency.

*The writer is a professor of political science at the Pusan National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Yong-cheol
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