▲ A Korean beef gift set worth 47,580 won after the Kim Young-ran Law goes into effect. Provided by Chosun.com.
South Korea is facing a crucial turning point with the imminent introduction of the so-called Kim Young-ran Law on September 28. The National Assembly has put this anti-graft act in motion, in an attempt to redress the ills of Korean society after its rotten core was laid bare after the Sewol ferry crisis. However, the bill has been embroiled in fierce disputes that have jeopardized its very survival, ever since it was first drafted. Will this bill root out the seeds of corruption that plague the country despite the odds?
Named after the former head of the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission (ACRC) Kim Young-ran, the making of this law was triggered in 2011 by a series of corruption scandals in the government. Lawmakers, who were hitherto busy looking the other way, had no choice but to appease the infuriated public by approving the bill. Even then, it was only the Constitutional Court’s seal of approval that saved the bill in the face of petitions that sought to sabotage its legitimacy.
The fundamental premise of the Kim Young-ran Law is that bribery and inappropriate solicitation should not be condoned under any circumstances, even when it does not lead outright to undue influence. As of now, officials are charged with corruption only when there is concrete proof that substantiates their wrongdoings. With the enactment of this law, however, the mere act of giving a gift or buying a meal could amount to a punishable crime.
How the law plans to regulate this is by setting a specific limit on the value of gifts. This regulation has become known as the 3·5·10 rule, meaning gifts, meals, and cash gifts for funerals and weddings cannot exceed 30,000 won, 50,000 won, and 100,000 won, respectively. The penalty for breaking the law is a maximum of two years in prison or fine of up to 20 million won. So far, it sounds like the National Assembly is determined to get the job this time around. If so, what is all the controversy about?
Gaping Loopholes Undermining Its Effectiveness
One issue that has been raised is the vagueness of the law, since its definition of illegal solicitation and corruption has too many grey areas. Critics argue that such ambiguity could lead to the widespread abuse of the law. In addition, the anti-graft bill’s wide-ranging scope has also come under fire. Some argue that treating private schools teachers and journalists as “public officials” and subjecting them to such a tight leash might be overstepping the bounds. As a result, experts estimate that more than four million people will be affected by the law.
On the other hand, a group of officials who should be under the strictest scrutiny seems to have escaped from the reach of this legislation. By specifying that “delivering a petition from a third party or making suggestions to improve policy operation is allowed,” lawmakers have essentially granted themselves immunity from the Kim Young-ran Law. This way, they are free to receive any gifts from interest groups under the pretext of processing civil complaints. Given their notorious reputation for a lack of transparency, such unscrupulous behavior has only fueled the public’s rage towards lawmakers and skepticism about the effectiveness of the law.
What compound the problem are its repercussions on the economic sphere. Industries that have benefitted the most from the gift-giving tradition that has been an essential part of Korean culture will be hit the hardest, due to a sharp decline in consumer demands resulting from the 3·5·10 rule. In particular, the agricultural and retailsectors are expected to feel the pinch from the fallout. Overall, the Korea Economic Research Institute (KERI) estimated the economy will suffer a loss of 11 trillion won after the anti-graft act goes into effect. Not surprisingly, thousands of people have taken to the streets, calling for the scrapping of the legislation altogether.
▲ A survey on the Kim Young-ran Law, surveying 1,000 Korean male and female adults. Provided by JTBC news.
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures
Yet, in this case, a long-term perspective that looks ahead into the future should take precedence over a myopic attitude that obsesses over short-term impacts. “Although there exist impractical aspects to this act, they should by no means get in the way of its enactment,” said Professor Choi Byung-dae (Public Administration, Hanyang University). He underscored the urgency of this issue, adding that “such impracticalities could be gradually alleviated by adjusting the details as we go along.” His suggestion was slightly loosening the rein by replacing the 3·5·10 rule with the 5·10·10 rule, which would ease the pain for the economy.
The Constitutional Court and the Park administration seem to share the same sentiment. It is their belief that the benefits of implementing this law will ultimately outweigh the costs. South Korea’s corruption has long been identified as one of the root causes hampering its growth. According to Hyundai Research Institute (HRI), increasing Korea’s level of transparency to be on a par with the average of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) will translate to an increase in GDP per capita by 136.5 dollar, while its economic growth rate will be accelerated by an additional 0.65 percent. In the long run, this will end up boosting the economy to a greater extent than any other short-term fiscal policy.
Furthermore, the criticisms against the severity of Kim Young-ran Law only go to show how deeply the culture of corruption is embedded in the national psyche. The gifts and meals that many have been taking forgranted in Korea are strictly prohibited in countries such as Singapore, where anti-graft measures are taken much more seriously. Singapore’s remarkable economic growth is largely attributed to a high degree of transparency, thanks to a stringent anti-corruption law that punishes even the slightest hint of bribery.
In short, sacrifices must be made to achieve the greater good, and the Kim Young-ran Law is no exception. However, such sacrifices could be lessened as long as the government and the National Assembly are willing to accommodate the opponents’ demands through compromises. At the same time, the public should also stay vigilant and reflect upon their own behaviors. This law may be far from perfect, but we can no longer afford to sit on our hands while this country is slowly rotting away from the inside.