[Viewpoint] Be wary of old acquaintances

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[Viewpoint] Be wary of old acquaintances

Oh Jung-so was a highly demanded intelligence officer during the government under President Kim Young-sam. Known to have spearheaded a wiretapping team at the National Intelligence Service, he must have been well-informed.

During a private meeting in 2009, he summed up key features of bribery corruptions citing the case of Chang Hak-ro, a close aide of former President Kim.

One does not normally receive money from a new acquaintance. He or she pockets gifts and cash over a period of time from someone they have known for a long time that over the years pile up to a scandalous amount. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Money is handed out for a reason. An acquaintance can turn into a broker and allow for cash gifts and other forms of bribes.

But looking at the long line of top government officials heading to the prosecution headquarters in southern Seoul, Oh’s theory on bribery still hits the nail on the head. Choi See-joong, former chairman of the Korea Communications Commission and thought of as a political mentor to the president, said he took money from a hometown acquaintance offered as “an allowance.”

The presidential secretary and vice minister of culture, sports, and tourism also said the money they received were donations from long-time acquaintances.

They may not have dreamt of their disgraceful exit from the central stage of power at the beginning of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s term.

In 2008, Choi quoted an old saying that old age would be accompanied by pain and trouble if he failed to maintain his integrity. It was an advice from veteran politician Yun Bo-seon who lost his presidential bid against the general-turned-president Park Chung Hee twice. Choi said he kept the saying close to his heart. He said he canceled a trip with his grandchildren to a resort because it was run by a company that falls in the jurisdiction of his public work.

His friend and older brother of the president, Lee Sang-deuk, also follows that advice. The elder Lee would cite the case with President Roh Moo-hyun’s older brother Roh Gun-pyeong who went behind bars on corruption charges after Roh retired from office.

“If I am wrong, I may be safe for two to three years, but everything will come out four to five years later,” he said, stressing that he therefore was taking extra care to keep distance from temptations or wrong relationships. He also said he does not meet anyone new. On the rising stage, everyone in the power echelon would have had more or less the same mindset.

But when do things go wrong? People are not crooked from the beginning. It is deluding to believe that only good people practice good behavior and evil people bad. People slap their knees and say “I knew this would happen,” only after such events take place. We should not doubt the past integrity of those who are now sitting before prosecutors. They may have tried to keep temptation at bay.

But at one stage, the lines may have turned blurry. They may not have been aware that they crossed the line or realized they have come too far to go back.

American psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” that “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

One may let his or her guard down with decades-old friends and long-time acquaintances, taking the wrong path or committing sins under the influence of familiarity.

One may forget that money should not have been involved. Even among the closest, anyone in powerful offices should not relax vigilance.

To know a person, the wise from ancient China advise, examine his friends in ordinary days, his associations in times of abundance, the people he recommends in public service and things he avoids and does not do during hard times. It is wisdom we should keep in mind today as well.

* The writer is deputy editor of the political and international affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Ko Jung-ae
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