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The World

South Koreans Ponder Just How Far Corruption Reaches

A widening bribery scandal prompts examination of a give-and-take culture.

January 27, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — The money used to arrive in apple crates.

Now, it comes by the truckload. The only thing that has changed in South Korea, cynics say, is the size of the container.

As prosecutors dig into the financing of the last presidential election, they're unearthing some unseemly secrets. In the months before the December 2002 contest won by Roh Moo Hyun, about $50 million in illegal contributions changed hands as South Korea's largest corporations tried to curry favor with the political parties. More than a dozen people -- assemblymen, party hacks and moguls -- have been arrested so far.

Because South Korean currency comes in such small denominations that it is a logistical feat to make a payoff of any consequence, the scandals have taken on a quality of high farce.

When LG Corp., one of the country's largest conglomerates, allegedly gave $12 million to conservative opposition candidate Lee Hoi Chang, a truck stuffed with cash was reportedly left at a highway rest stop and the keys given to one of the politician's aides. Hyundai Group allegedly delivered its money using a sedan packed so tightly with cash it could barely be driven.

The spectacle has left voters clucking their tongues in indignation. But it also has prompted some serious soul-searching among the South Korean public about the role that under-the-table payments play in almost every aspect of life, be it academia or health care.

It used to be common in South Korea for parents to give gifts to their children's teachers to secure front-row classroom seats -- dating from a time when most people were too poor to buy eyeglasses for near-sighted children -- or for businessmen to prepare envelopes of cash for journalists before being interviewed.

Some of these practices have died out as South Korea has become a more affluent and democratic society, but people here believe that their country still has a long way to go. Transparency International, the worldwide corruption monitoring organization, lists South Korea as one of the countries -- along with Russia, China and Italy -- where bribes are most likely to be paid in a business transaction.

"There has always been a lot of cash-giving and gift-giving in this society," said Michael Breen, author of the book "The Koreans." "People always seem to need staggeringly large sums of money to get things done. Everybody gets caught up in it."

Inspired by the political scandals, the South Korean newspaper Munhwa Ilbo has been running a series in which ordinary people confess their own acts of corruption.

In one article, a Seoul building inspector describes how his department takes 10% of construction costs in return for licenses, while a father confides that he and his wife bribed a college soccer coach to get their son onto a team. A school headmaster admits paying bribes to get a promotion.

"If we want to have a corruption-free society, we need to face up to the fact that it is not just in politics. It has spread into many fields," said Kim Jong Ho, associate editor of Munhwa Ilbo.

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Grass-Roots Efforts

Several civic groups have sprung up with the aim of rooting out corruption. One is trying to abolish the May 15 holiday of Teachers' Appreciation Day -- which some believe can be an occasion for inappropriate gift-giving. Another erected a scale model of the national legislature in downtown Seoul and threw buckets of water on it in a symbolic cleansing of the political system.

There are so many corruption investigations underway right now that the front pages of the newspapers are dominated by photographs of the accused cringing in embarrassment.

The South Korean vice president of the International Olympic Committee, Kim Un Yong, is under investigation regarding allegations that he accepted bribes from businessmen who wanted seats on the committee and that he passed bribes to North Korean officials in return for their participation in sporting events in the South.

This month, IBM Korea executives were charged with bribing local government officials and purchasing agents to buy its equipment.

But the biggest investigations concern the cozy relationships between politicians and big business that date back to the 1970s, when South Korea's authoritarian rulers pushed for rapid development of the country.

Part of the problem is the clash between the old mores and the ethical standards expected in a modern democracy. New campaign-finance laws put strict limits on what politicians can raise and spend, but by tradition they need huge amounts of cash.

People who attend campaign rallies or distribute leaflets expect to be paid, while incumbents must also fork out generous cash gifts to well-connected constituents at weddings and funerals if they are to retain their support.

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