Keep corruption at bayPublic sector corruption has long dogged South Korean society. All administrations pledge to fight corruption when they take power, but we have seen very little progress. According to Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization that monitors corporate and political corruption internationally, the country’s rank in terms of perceived corruption has been worsening.
But recently, we have seen some very noticeable changes in court decisions. A criminal court in Busan last month delivered an unprecedented sentence of severity, handing down a prison sentence of 15 years and a fine of 3.93 billion won ($3.63 million) to a senior employee of state-funded Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power who collected 1.7 billion won in bribes in a procurement process.
A district court in Seoul last month also slapped a nine-year jail term and fines of 1.1 billion won on the head of the administrative district of Chilgok, North Gyeongsang, for pocketing 520 million won in return for showing favoritism in construction orders. In addition to those bribery cases, many corruption-related cases have recently ended in heavy sentences and fines. Though the decisions need to be upheld by higher courts, the general trend of sternly penalizing all types of bribery is unlikely to be reversed.
The court is applying a law on additional punishments for specific crimes that was enacted in 2008 and that recommends assessing double penalties on corruption cases. Under the law, the court can impose fines on violators up to five times the size of the bribes the individuals collected. When public servants receive jail time, their government employee pension and severance pay will be cut. Anyone caught being involved in shady deals in the public sector is now doomed. Economic penalties are the most effective punishment tool for curbing corruption in the public sector.
A study by the Hyundai Economic Research Institute said that if the country’s corruption levels are improved to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s average, Korea’s economic potential could rise by nearly 4 percent. The court and prosecutors should maintain a zero-tolerance approach against corruption. Public sector employees must understand how times have changed and keep the temptation for corruption at bay.