Scholarships could be affected by antigraft law

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Scholarships could be affected by antigraft law

The ambiguity of the antigraft law, which took effect last week, is causing confusion over whether public officials can even apply for scholarships and training programs supported by foreign governments.

This includes the United Kingdom’s prestigious Chevening scholarship program for international applicants, funded by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as training programs offered by the U.S. State Department or other foreign governments inviting Korean professors or officials.

Those hoping to apply to such programs are biding their time as there is currently no authoritative interpretation of 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.

This fledging law, which took effect Wednesday, is still plagued with controversy over its alleged lack of clarity and immoderate purview.

But the Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission that will mainly handle violations of the law has few answers right now.

“We asked the Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission if the British government’s programs to provide a scholarship to Korean students will violate the Kim Young-ran Law but have yet to receive an answer,” an official of the U.K. Embassy in Seoul said Thursday. “My heart is heavy because we have a lot of applicants to the program asking questions.”

The embassy since August is receiving applicants who are hoping to pursue their postgraduate studies at prestigious British universities through the Chevening scholarship program, which has especially been popular amongst civil servants and in academia.

The law defines “public officials” broadly and encompasses not only civil servants and lawmakers, but teachers at private schools, journalists and even their spouses.

Applications to the annual Chevening scholarship will be accepted until Nov. 8, and 20 students will be selected for this program, which can provide up to 40 million won ($36,245) annually for a student’s tuition and living expenses.

Overseas studies programs offered by private corporations or foreign institutions, as well as publicity-related business trips, are prohibited under the Kim Young-ran Law according to the Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission’s interpretation.

While the Chevening scholarship is offered by the British government, it is not clear if it will violate the new law or not.

“There has been an outpouring of inquiries from foreign embassies in Korea,” said an official of the commission, “so we are reviewing the application of the law.”

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

Neither the commission nor the Board of Audit and Inspection have received any serious reports of violation through their websites so far, but they have been flooded with phone calls inquiring about the law and what it does and does not sanction. Rather than public officials, however, most callers have been civilians.

“Rather than asking if somebody else’s behavior is in violation of the law,” the official from the commission explained, “we get calls asking whether the law would apply to themselves. It seems like it will be not be until early October before actual reports start coming in.”

BY PARK SUNG-HOON, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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