[Viewpoint] When are bribes innocent?

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[Viewpoint] When are bribes innocent?

More than a decade ago, a conglomerate chairman and big-wig politicians stood trial for bribery, embezzlement and other corruption charges. The tycoon sat through the trial in a wheelchair, refusing to speak, insisting he has become aphasic due to shock. A politician accused of pocketing bribes from the tycoon told the court that he took the money because the defendant said he wanted to help him because he admired the politician. One day, the tycoon suddenly got his voice back. The politician confronted the tycoon; “You said you were giving the money because you admired me. So there were no strings attached, right?” The tycoon snorted, “we say that all the time.”

Lim Hea-kyung, superintendent of the Busan Metropolitan City Office of Education, was recently questioned by the police for accepting boutique garments from two kindergarten owners. She said the gifts were given without any conditions. But those who paid for the clothes obviously thought differently. Their testimony: “We thought it would be helpful to be friendly with the education chief … for later.”

Politicians and bureaucrats caught taking bribes insist they gave or promised nothing in return. The dissociation is important as bribery offences are prosecuted for agreements over a corrupt deal or favor. Criminal charges will be taken if a public official receives the money and exercises his or her influence to act or refrain from acting in return for the money. If there were no strings attached, the official walks free. A prosecutor was declared innocent by the supreme court even after routinely being entertained and receiving money from local businessmen. A close aide of the president, while admitting he accepted kickbacks worth 600 million won ($518,400), said he paid no favor in return. If no rewards can be confirmed, bribery cases often are dismissed.

But are bribes innocent if they are not rewarded in some way? One time I had a dinner appointment with a businessman. He suddenly changed the venue. When we finished dinner, two bills arrived on our table. One was a bill for a lawmaker and his guests. The businessman was called upon by the lawmaker to pay for the dinner on his behalf. There are some senior bureaucrats and lawmakers who still think lightly of this so-called sponsorship. A senior government official is paid handsomely for speaking at a corporate lecture. It is a graceful form of bribery that cannot be contained by the law. But it’s obvious what this is all about.

Japanese professor of economic ethics Yasuo Takeuchi explains the exchange as “politics of grants.” An exchange is exercised in a two-way direction by giving and receiving. But if money and service goes in one direction in a form of grant, the exchange moves beyond the economic realm into a political one. According to his logic, grafts and bribes offered to a ruling class could be likened to tithes or customary offerings in religious terms. Those with faith offer money or gifts in hopes of receiving blessings or to avoid greater danger in the future. People offer bribes with the same expectations. In Asia, such bribery has become so customary that both giver and receiver feel no sense of guilt. The custom stubbornly goes on because there is no attachment to guilt. Are gifts offered to avoid unfair treatment really innocent?

The Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission is pursuing a bill to punish public officials who receive money regardless of what reasons they may have. Pocket money from a friend cannot be tolerated. The commission chief Kim Young-ran said, “Would the same friend give out money to other friends who are hard up or just friends in higher places?” Corruption is rampant in our society, but not because there are no laws to contain it. The new law may just become one of many that are bypassed. What is needed is willpower to cut off the deep-seated customs on bribes.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Sunny Yang
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