1st violation reported after antigraft law takes effect

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1st violation reported after antigraft law takes effect

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While an upmarket Korean food restaurant, left, near the Seoul Central District Court in Seocho District, southern Seoul, is almost empty during lunch time on Wednesday, an in-house cafeteria, right, in the Central Government Complex in Jongno District, central Seoul, was packed on the first day when the antigraft law took effect. [NEWSIS]

The first reported violation of the new antigraft law was recorded on Wednesday, the first day of its enforcement, as the anticorruption commission faced a series of inquiries regarding the specifics of the statutes.

A college student reported to the commission’s Seoul office that a professor allegedly received gifts for allowing a student to skip class after he had found employment. Earlier that day, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency received an anonymous call from someone who claimed a student gave a professor a can of coffee.

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, took effect Wednesday after a controversy over its ambiguity and excessiveness. The Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission that will mainly handle violations of the law, said it received the first report at 5:30 p.m. The public made inquiries throughout the day about the specific implementation of the law.

“Until yesterday, we got about three to four calls an hour about the law,” said an official of the Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission. “Today, we are flooded by calls, maybe 30 to 40 calls one after another.”

The official said most of the inquiries were specific questions about possible violations. “Sometimes,” he said, “we were asked if the informant’s identity would be protected or not.”

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 statutes.

On the first day of enforcement, officials kept a particularly low profile, and many expressed concerns that domestic consumption may shrink.

“We have a high expectation that the law will serve as the turning point to drastically improve national transparency,” a senior official of the Blue House. “But when consumption freezes, it could hurt the growth rate of the third and fourth quarters, so we are looking into countermeasures.”

A report by the Korea Economic Research Institute said the law will bring about 11.6 trillion won ($10.6 billion) in annual losses, with 8.49 trillion won in the restaurant industry alone. A mid-level official of a government ministry said he split the bill with a guest after a lunch. “It was little awkward,” he said, “but I guess it’s better to go Dutch.”

The People’s Party acting head Park Jie-won cautioned its lawmakers that they must not be made into examples. A Saenuri lawmaker said he won’t make lunch or dinner appointment with public servants and journalists for some time.

Restaurants near the government were severely hit. “From about two weeks ago, I could not see my regular customers who are public servants,” said an owner of a fine dining restaurant near the government complex in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. “Because we lost customers, we reduced our staff. But I am not sure how long we can survive.”

A similar restaurant in the neighborhood already closed its business 15 days ago.

“We will see much confusion at the early stages of enforcement, and there will be trials and errors,” said Koo Jeong-woo, sociology professor of Sungkyunkwan University.

Koo added, “But this will be the chance to overcome our society’s perennial culture of improper solicitation.”

BY CHA SE-HYEON, PARK SUNG-HOON [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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