A symbol marred by scandal

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A symbol marred by scandal

A graft scandal has erupted in an unexpected corner involving one of the country’s national symbols, the great seal. Manufacturers allegedly snubbed traditional casting procedures, and a large percentage of the gold authorized by the state budget for use in the seal was appropriated to produce smaller copies for high-profile government and political figures.

It sounds more like a plot of a TV show. The national seal is a symbol of the country and its official authority to make laws, appoint officials and conduct diplomatic relations. It is mortifying to hear that the national symbol has been an instrument for corruption. We have to ask where the Ministry of Public Administration and Security was when it should have been supervising this process.

The national seal currently in use was produced in 2007 in a traditional way, unlike the one created by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in 1999 through a modern process, which generated fissures. A total of 190 million won ($160,000) was approved from the budget for 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of gold to produce the new seal. The chief of the seal-making team, Min Hong-gyu, reported that the seal was made in a traditional kiln in Sancheong, South Gyeongsang.

Yet it was later discovered that he was lying. Another member confessed that the firing procedure took place in a modern furnace in Icheon, Gyeonggi. The manufacturing process was supposed to be recorded, but Min left key details out, saying he could not reveal the secrets of the 600-year-old process.

The story of the graft scandal is horrendous. The 947 grams of gold left over from the making of the seal were used to turn out 16 smaller replicas. Thirteen of them were handed out to presidential candidate Chung Dong-young and other high-ranking government officials. Three were sold to ordinary people for a total of 65 million won.

Those seals were highly popular because of their symbolism ahead of the presidential election. Candidate Chung said he thought the replica was a common copper seal. But he should answer whether he truly did not know where the seal came from and why he took it. The then-vice minister of public administration, Choi Yang-sik, said he paid 500,000 won for the seal, a pittance compared with the 22 million won price tag for private buyers.

The history of the national seal is marred with scandal. The first one was stolen, the third cracked and the fourth was made by an unscrupulous charlatan. The police should thoroughly investigate the manufacturing process. The government will have to decide whether or not to use the tainted seal down the road.
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