S. Koreans go Dutch as anti-graft law kicks in

For public servants, journalists and teachers, there's no longer such a thing as a free lunch

SEOUL • During the lunch hour in downtown Seoul, amid government agencies, diners lined up at cash registers to do something long considered a breach of etiquette here: splitting the bill.

Thursday's phenomenon came one day after a widely discussed law aimed at curtailing corruption took effect in South Korea. Among other things, it bars public servants, journalists and teachers from accepting a meal worth more than 30,000 won (S$37), if there is a potential conflict of interest.

That alone may change the dining culture, where tradition holds that the host or the oldest person at a table picks up the tab.

"We thought it was safest to simply go Dutch, because it's often difficult to tell which situation constitutes a conflict of interest," teacher Cho Myun Mi said about her lunch on Thursday with colleagues.

"It was awkward," she added, "but we'd better get used to it."

The new law, called the Kim Young Ran Act after the former Supreme Court justice who drafted it, is being hailed as a milestone in efforts to fight graft in South Korea, where collusion between government officials and businesses is a major public concern - and where wining and dining, cash envelopes and other kinds of gifts have long been central to doing business.

The new law, called the Kim Young Ran Act after the former Supreme Court justice who drafted it, is being hailed as a milestone in efforts to fight graft in South Korea, where collusion between government officials and businesses is a major public concern - and where wining and dining, cash envelopes and other kinds of gifts have long been central to doing business.

Besides meal curbs, the law bars people in the targeted professions - about four million, out of a total population of 51 million - from accepting any gift worth more than US$45 (S$62), or US$90 at weddings or funerals, if a conflict of interest could exist. And with a few exceptions, people in those fields just cannot accept any gift worth more than US$910.

People seem to be taking the law seriously. Schools across South Korea posted signs this week warning parents not to bring gifts for teachers, a common practice that has raised concern about corruption in the education-focused society. Funeral directors even reported that fewer wreaths were being delivered to grieving families.

But restaurants seemed likely to be most affected.

"We saw this law coming and have prepared special set menus that do not exceed the 30,000-won limit, retiring some of our more expensive options," said restaurateur Kim Bu Shik.

"The new law will make our society more transparent, but I must say it is not good for our business at all, for now. Many of the government people who frequented my place don't come out." He added that they were apparently eating at in-house cafeterias instead.

In Parliament, an audit of government agencies is under way - a process that, in the past, was often accompanied by officials from the agencies treating lawmakers to sumptuous lunches. But on Thursday, lawmakers and members of their staff filled the Parliament cafeteria, dining among themselves.

Journalists, another group targeted by the law, have also been known to accept free meals, and sometimes more expensive gifts, such as golf outings. Last month, a top editor at the country's largest newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, resigned after it emerged that he had gone on a lavish trip to Italy paid for by a company. The newspaper later apologised.

Public grievances over corruption among the government and business elite run deep in the country, and calls for an overhaul have mounted in recent years.

The new measure does allow for exceptions, like gifts between close relatives or people in love, although critics say such a sentiment is hard to define. They also say that in South Korea, where much of one's social life is shaped by school and hometown connections, it can be hard to tell where conflict of interest begins.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2016, with the headline 'S. Koreans go Dutch as anti-graft law kicks in'. Print Edition | Subscribe