New measures to tackle corruption in KoreaFebruary 2015
In February, Korea’s National Assembly is expected to pass new legislation to reduce corruption among public officials. The legislation, entitled the Act on the Prohibition of Improper Solicitation and Exchanges of Gifts, would go into effect one year later.
The definition of who is a public official includes not just governmental employees but also staff members of private high schools and universities, kindergarten teachers, medical staff at major hospitals, and journalists because it considers the nature of their work “public.” This broad category is estimated to include anywhere from six million to 20m people. All forms of solicitation and “entertainment” through personal relationships and connections, including meals and gifts, would be subject to regulation.
Under the new law public officials will be criminally charged and could face up to three years in prison if they are found to have received money or items worth KRW1m or more on one occasion, regardless whether the payment was intended to secure a particular favour.
If a public official receives money or goods worth less than KRW 1m in connection he or she will be liable to a fine of up to five times the value of the money or gifts received.
Another facet of the bill is that it also includes relatives of public officials. If a relative of a public official receives money or gifts worth KRW 1m, the official - but not the relative - will be criminally charged. The reason for this is that, in many instances, courts have determined that bribes have been paid to relatives thereby enabling accused officials to claim ignorance.
Although there is broad agreement about the need for the new law, there is disagreement about details. Many think the definition of “public officials” is too broad since it could be interpreted to include almost 40% of the population.
Some critics feel that the law would essentially outlaw many quite normal social meetings between friends or colleagues.
The bill was initiated by a former head of an anticorruption commission who proposed the legislation in 2011 and is based on her experience in trying to tackle corruption under existing legislation. It is supported by the general public calling for tougher punishments for corrupt public officials following the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April last year that left more than 300 dead. That tragedy exposed widespread corruption between the public and private sector.
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