Antigraft law’s vagueness is a concern for many

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Antigraft law’s vagueness is a concern for many

Signs of chaos loomed on the eve of the enforcement of a new antigraft law, as the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the statutes differ from the anticorruption commission’s guidelines.

The Improper Solicitation and Graft Act, often referred to as the Kim Young-ran law after the former head of the anticorruption commission who authored the initial draft, formally takes effect as of today. The law defines “public officials” broadly. Aside from civil servants and lawmakers, teachers at private schools and journalists are covered because the bill considers their work public. Even their spouses are covered.

While about 4 million public officials and their spouses are directly covered by the law, those who seek inappropriate favors from them or offer bribes are also punished, making the entire nation subjects to the new law.

The ambiguity of the law, however, has already invited confusion and protest. Although the Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission defined the scope of activities in relation to duty widely, the Supreme Court showed concern about such interpretations. And their different views were clearly presented in the internal manual distributed by the top court to judicial workers nationwide.

The Supreme Court distributed Tuesday an internal guideline to judges and public servants at the nationwide courts. The 80-page manual, drafted by the office of the inspector-general of judicial ethics, addressed frequently asked questions regarding the new law.

The specific enforcement guidelines published by the anticorruption commission in May said being treated to a meal by job-related contacts is a violation of the law if it costs more than 30,000 won ($27.33). Accepting a gift worth more than 50,000 won or receiving more than 100,000 won in cash for a wedding or funeral will also be illegal.

The definition of “job-related,” however, is ambiguous. For example, it remains unclear if it is illegal for a businessman, who has a 30-year-long friendship with a public servant, to pay for a 50,000-won meal for the friend. It can be seen as a social activity between two friends, but it can also be seen as a violation of the new law.

While the commission said the nature of the meeting should be decided based on whether they had professional ties at the time of the meeting, the Supreme Court said the commission was interpreting the law unreasonably widely.

“If you interpret the job relations too widely, you will reach a conclusion that a judge cannot meet any lawyer or a member of a judiciary under any circumstance,” a Supreme Court official said. “And this goes the same for other jobs covered by the law. The definition of job relation can only be made more specifically in the future through individual cases.”

Exceptions are also ambiguous. While the anticorruption commission said exceptions can be made if the activities are not against social norms, lawyer Choi Seok-rim of the law firm Bae, Kim and Lee said there is no way to find out how a court will define social norms until it reaches the verdict in a courtroom in an individual case. “The general public,” he said, “who has to respect the law starting today, are bound to be confused.”

The Supreme Court also gives an example of the exception of the enforcement guideline of the commission in its manual. While public servants are barred from paying for meals over 30,000 won to reporters or other job-related contacts, the Supreme Court said annual events can be exceptions. The court hosts a discussion of judges and lawyers and an official dinner every year, and said the meal served at the events can be over 30,000 won.

“The purpose of the events, the status and scope of the participants and their abilities to pay the bills should be taken into account,” the court said. “Serving a meal worth 50,000 won at those events is not against the social rules.”

Lawyer Kang Ji-won, husband of the former anticorruption head Kim, said the commission’s interpretation of the law and a court’s ruling may differ, so it is unsafe to clearly say what is allowed and what is not.


BY CHA SE-HYEON, YOON HO-JIN [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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