We Koreans are a gracious people. Imbedded within us is the instinctive need to give gifts. In the Western world, gifts are most often given during birthdays, Christmas, and bridal showers; in Korea, showing up with a bundle of gifts to eat lunch with someone who had offered assistance is often customary. We express our thanks not with a thank you note but with a thank you present. Our generosity, however, unintended consequences.
The ubiquity of magnanimous giving and gracious receiving has often blurred the boundary between simple appreciation and duplicitous bribery. It is not at all uncommon for “a gift” to be used as a euphemism for “a bribe.” A parent generously gifting a teacher a Panthére de Cartier earrings can be taken as either expressing sincere gratitude or a presenting a crafty incentive. Even in the political arena, politicians, in a number of cases, have been found or suspected to have surreptitiously accepted gifts from their peers, inciting much scrutiny from the public. Whether this is causation or mere correlation, one can only speculate.
Deeming bribery a serious threat, the National Assembly ratified the Anti-Corruption and Conflicts of Interest Act, dubbed the Kim Young-ran Law, on March 27, 2015, in effect by September 28, 2016. Under the law, giving gifts valued in excess of one million won to government officials, the media, and private schools is a criminal offense.
Though the law is a step forward, it is a step in the wrong direction. The initiative of the National Assembly to confront corruption head-on is commendable, but the various clauses included undermine the efficacy of the policy. One such fatal flaw is that the law sees offerings of one million won and five million won as distinct. But if both offerings have malicious intent, why would the amount of money have any effect in determining whether or not the offering is a bribe? Wouldn’t the bribe still be a bribe whether or not the offering is the keys to a 2.4 million USD Aston Martin One-77 or a brand new iPhone 6S? Indeed, the One-77 may very well have a greater impact on swaying a politician than a cheaper and less expensive gift. But the purpose of both (the more expensive and the less expensive gift) is insidious: both are still bribes no matter the price.
The implications of the law for the country are significant, especially because as many as three million people may be prosecuted– and some may not even be the perpetrator. Under the law, the family of the recipient is criminalized as well, a clause that is both unjust and unnecessary. Such does not stray far from North Korea’s practice of forcing the families of defectors into labor camps, even if the family was innocent.
With all its clauses, however, our politicians attempts at cracking down on corruption is, simply put, ineffective. The law’s failure to differentiate between a gift of appreciation and a gift of manipulation is its downfall and its unnecessary severity is its Achilles heel.
But what of SIS? With its far-flung impact, however, the ramifications of the law for SIS are minimal. Due to pre-existing guidelines on gifts, which instructed teachers to kindly reject or return gifts from parents, bribery has been of little to no concern. According to Michael Colaianni, Director of Schools, and James Gerhard, HS Principal, SIS has already reviewed on bribery.
To the credit of the lawmakers, however, the solution to the issue of bribery is one that cannot be easily found. Gifting is so deeply rooted in Korean culture that showing gratitude without a wine bottle and a gift card to Lotte Department Store could elicit a passive-aggressive glare. Gifting has become the norm in our society, and its ubiquity makes differentiating between a gift and a bribe without eliminating the very culture of gifting next to impossible.