Politicians fail to agree on bill punishing bribes

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Politicians fail to agree on bill punishing bribes

Calls for the passage of a bill seeking to punish government officials for taking bribes worth 1 million won ($980) or more have heightened in the wake of the Sewol ferry accident last month, which has shone a light on the problems plaguing Korea’s bureaucracy.

But the proposal, widely referred to as the Kim Young-ran Bill, which was submitted 15 months earlier, again failed to move on Tuesday, with political affairs committee members at the National Assembly failing to narrow their differences.

The term for current committee members ends this month, and new lawmakers will have been appointed to lead the panel by the time discussion on the bill is likely resumed in June.

The idea for the proposal was originally outlined in June 2011 by Kim Young-ran, the former chairwoman of the state-run Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, while the bill itself was proposed last August as part of an effort by the Park Geun-hye administration to eradicate nepotism, patronage and influence-peddling.

Politicians scrambled to raise calls for the bill’s passage after the Sewol ferry capsized April 16 off Korea’s southwest coast, leaving more than 300 people dead or missing. The president, who delivered an address to the nation on May 19, also called on lawmakers to pass the legislation.

On Tuesday, political affairs committee members failed to reach a consensus on the part of the bill that bans officials from performing duties that conflict with their personal, familial or business interests.

Some lawmakers have argued that it has the potential to infringe on basic working rights.

Under the bill, a public servant who works in the welfare department of a district office, for instance, would need to transfer to a different department if his or her sibling applied to the same department in order to receive basic welfare benefits from the government.

The committee did agree, however, to include private school teachers and journalists working for private media in the proposal’s scope. The expanded wording will apply to approximately 1.86 million people - and if their families are taken into account, that figure could increase to nearly 18 million, which many lawmakers have argued is too many.

Some political insiders have said that the lawmakers may have been deliberately passive about the legislation, given that it would comprehensively block them from requesting favors from public servants for trivial civil complaints.

“If the Kim Young-ran bill is passed, lawmakers will effectively have nothing to do in their constituencies other than just showing up,” said a politician who asked for anonymity. “The failure to pass the bill goes against the interest of lawmakers.”

The core of the bill is the punishment of government officials who take any kind of payment, even as gestures of goodwill. Even if their parents, siblings or children are the ones accepting the bribes, the officials will receive a penalty.

Although anyone who accepts a payment can be charged under the law, punishments differ depending on whether favors were given in exchange for a payment or gift.

Currently, government officials who give favors for bribes will face a maximum three-year prison term or a maximum fine of 30 million won.

But officials who take bribes without giving favors are only liable for a fine up to five times the amount of the bribe.

That loophole previously made it possible for government officials to be acquitted on corruption charges after successfully arguing that they never gave favors in return for a bribe, which is technically not illegal.

BY SEO JI-EUN [spring@joongang.co.kr]

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