A year on, anti-corruption law changes South Korea's graft-prone culture

SEOUL - For many parents of school-going children in South Korea, the year-old anti-graft law has banished a headache they face every May, when Teachers' Day comes round.

It means never having to worry about what expensive gift to buy for their children's teachers anymore.

With much emphasis placed on a child's academic background, South Korean parents would go to great lengths on Teachers' Day to keep their child in the teachers' good books, according to Nikkei Asian Review.

That practice, which some say is akin to bribery, has changed, thanks to the anti-graft law that kicked in a year ago.

An online poll of 36,947 parents and 18,101 teachers by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education showed that 76 per cent of parents and 82 per cent of teachers said inappropriate requests for special favours in schools stopped after the law took effect.

In general, 89.4 per cent of 1,202 people in a separate survey said the law has been effective in reducing bribery, The Korea Herald reported, quoting the survey released by the Korean Sociological Association in a symposium last month (September).

The Improper Solicitations and Graft Prohibition Act, better known as the "Kim Young Ran Law" after the former Supreme Court justice who proposed the Act, took effect on Sept 28, 2016.

The law targets teachers bribed by parents to give better grades, media professionals paid to give favourable publicity, and public servants bought off by businessmen to speed up bureaucratic processes.

They are now banned from accepting meals of more than 30,000 won (S$36), receiving gifts worth more than 50,000 won (S$60), or accepting more than 100,000 won (S$120) in cash, flowers or wreaths as congratulatory or condolence money from people other than family members.

Offenders will face a maximum sentence of three years in jail and a fine of up to 30 million won, according to The Korea Herald.

"There are some deep-seated practices in our culture that we had taken for granted although they could give rise to serious corruption," sociology professor Kim Seok Ho at Seoul National University told Yonhap News Agency.

"The law now serves as an institutional framework to prevent such practices and in actuality it has become a guiding principle for citizens' social and business activities. In this regard, the law has influenced our day-to-day lives very deeply," he added.

In a survey by the Korea Institute of Public Administration, 89 per cent of the general public and 95 per cent of civil servants supported the new law, according to Nikkei. This suggests that the legislation is viewed positively by both givers and recipients.

Spending on gifts and entertainment fell 15 per cent year-on-year in the first half of 2017 at 500 major homegrown companies, Nikkei reported, quoting South Korean private research firm CEO Score.

As for consumers, the legislation has also changed their habits - they now go for less expensive gifts.

During this month's harvest celebration of Chuseok, a popular occasion for giving presents, sales of items priced below the legal limit of 50,000 won for gifts increased by more than 50 per cent year-on-year at the Lotte Department Store, according to Nikkei.

While most people welcome the legislation and change their gift-giving habits accordingly, some still run afoul of the law.

There were 4,052 reported offences in the 10 months through July this year, according to a survey of public institutions by the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, Nikkei reported. Fines were imposed in 29 cases, and 11 led to prosecution and criminal penalties.

The first ruling after the implementation of the new law was given to a 55-year-old woman in December last year. She was ordered to pay 90,000 won, Yonhap reported.

The woman, who was not named, was accused of delivering 45,000 won worth of rice cakes - the limit was 30,000 won - to a police officer on Sept 28, the first day the law kicked in. The officer was investigating a fraud case she had lodged with the police.

While various polls have shown that the new legislation has been effective in getting rid of corruption, other issues have emerged as well.

For one thing, the law has caused damage to the industries of agriculture, livestock, fisheries, floral as well as food and beverage - the traditional sources of gifts.

A survey of 300 businesses in the industries found that 56.7 per cent of respondents said their sales had plunged an average of 34.6 per cent in the year after the law was enforced, The Korea Herald reported.