Whenever I read a news item regarding Korean corruption, I have mixed feelings. Usually the article is based on the latest finding by a well-meaning NGO that focuses on corrupting influence of big business on government without adequately addressing the root causes or even the breadth of corruption. Korean corruption doesn’t limit itself to envelopes and car trunks of cash being paid by business people to government officers.
So one may ask oneself, "Can Korea
end its many forms of corruption?" That is the essential question, and
the obvious answer is "no."
I don't mean that as a
cynical observation. Rather as much as I recognize Korean corruption
having greatly disappeared from its much higher levels of thirty years
ago, the very nature of Korean society precludes corruption from being
significantly reduced from its present levels.
was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Korean countryside of the 1970s,
virtually everyone lived in poverty by US standards. Some lived in
squalor, but the overwhelming majority lived simply and frugally. Those
who were considered well off at that time and place would nonetheless
have been considered to be poor by then American standards. However,
the relatively well off often had an attitude that could be haughty
given their well being was measured within the context of their villages
At the other end of the scale, Korean
public servants were paid ridiculously low wages, as is the case of many
developing countries. They actually needed outside income to live
relatively comfortably and to send their children to schools and
universities. Often, the only plausible means for this large societal
segment was to receive "gratuities." One could normally count on
having to pay a pretty consistent ten percent as unofficial gratuity to
get various matters handled. Eventually, the Korean government realized
that low public sector wages were a poor value.
Korean public sector workers overall get decent wages, steady
employment and superior retirement benefits - so much so, the
competition to get these jobs by often over-qualified applicants is
In any case, wealth, which many people may assume to the end goal of
corruption, is only relative and not absolute. Rather social power,
again as defined within one's social context, is the real corrupting
influence. And the corruption is not limited between government
officials and business tycoons. NGO executives, particularly when the
left wing is in power, find themselves in privileged positions; and
unsurprisingly, as we witnessed under Presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Roh
Moo-hyun, there was a ten-year spike in corruption involving NGOs.
corruption was measured by money or goods, we may consider a limit on
luxury handbags and gold watches. But the fact is, on the other
extreme, if someone has ten gold watches and two dozen luxury handbags,
etc., there will be a quest for even more. One may say the motivation
is greed, but it's obviously not greed for yet more handbags and
watches. More likely these well off individuals are driven by envy,
should there be anyone else possessing the same number or greater number
of goods and of newer or higher quality or status.
fundamental problem is that being a member of South Korean society is
very much a status-conscious undertaking, partially based on insecurity
as to whether any individual or family truly deserves its presumptive
ranking. What is less controversial is whether a Korean is in
possession of enviable goods or amounts of money. And to make matters
even more competitive; success, achievement, and social ranking are more
narrowly defined in South Korean than in many western and advanced
societies. Consequently, once an individual or family feels secure they
are not in danger of being left behind from the mass average, they
immediately recalibrate their insecurity so as to try to catch up to, if
not lead, other people in the next higher levels of society.
my conclusion is this: Some improvements in reducing corruption will
likely be made by new legislation, regulations, enforcement, etc. But,
until South Koreans essentially ease up on themselves and learn to be
happier with who they are and what they possess, envy and insecurity
will drive otherwise intelligent individuals to partaking in foolish
acts -- including corruption.
So can corruption be effectively
reduced in large measure from present levels? Perhaps. Will we see
substantial reductions? I’m doubtful.
On the other
hand, South Koreans have surprised both the world and themselves many
times over. At the same time, the causes of corruption rest on the
bedrock of Korean cultural and group psychology fundamentals. At best, I
can only hope matters may improve over time. And who knows? They just
by Tom Coyner. Senior Adviser to IPG.
IPG is engaged in projects for companies and entrepreneurs doing business in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Korea, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam and the U.S.