“First Goes Institutional Reform, Culture Changes Later”


An interview with Prof. Jung-Ok Lee, TI-Korea’s board member, about grand corruption in South Korea, the importance of cultural changes and the monitoring role of future generations.


TI-Korea: Prof Lee, South Korea’s score in this year’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) has dropped significantly, compared to the years before. What are the reasons?

Prof. Lee: South Korea has got a new and somehow ‘brutal’ law about integrity issues, the so-called Kim Young-ran Act. Though it was not enacted during the CPI survey period, the discourse on this legislation has already been active and public awareness has been formulated. This has changed the mindset of ordinary citizens a lot, they are now more sensitive for so-called ‘small’ exchanges (such as gifts to teachers and officials to say thank you). Procedural transparency has been institutionalized with this discourse. But on a higher level of the policy decision-making process, especially when big business people approach the government sector, people still believe that these transactions are not transparent and clear at all. And since the CPI is based on the people’s perception of integrity, the ordinary citizens’ mistrust is reflected in South Korea’s low ranking result.

So the problem isn’t corruption amongst ordinary officials or citizens but amongst authorities?

Because the discourse on the legislation affects the ordinary people’s expectation and because the public opinion encourages social monitoring, ordinary officials are very careful now. And they try to adjust to this new public opinion. But the public discourse on the new law has not been penetrated into the upper class level of society – they still can hide themselves behind the curtain.

Bertelsmann Foundation mentioned in their report: “The policy of the Korean government to fight corruption seems to be ineffective.” Would you agree with that comment?

I think the Korean government’s policy has targeted mainly institutional transparency. So when the government now initiates certain projects, they call for a clear and open competition. But the institutional reform has not touched the cultural tradition of South Korea. In Korea, institutional reform usually goes ahead of cultural changes. So first there is the institutional reform, and later the culture changes. So I think we are in a transition period now.

What do you mean with ‘cultural traditions’?

With cultural traditions, I mean nepotistic relationships based on family networks, school and university alumni gatherings, combined with localities. Those kinds of nepotistic inner circle relationships sometimes go first in Korea – under the cause of traditional ties.

In order to improve integrity in Korean society, what could be an effective policy or action that should be taken by the government?

The government should focus on the education of government officials, especially on the higher level, and training for ‘professional ethics’ should be established. Officials should not only be oriented by external and numerical standards but should develop a certain professional pride and professional ethics. This is so important because officials are mostly targeted as an object of a lobby. So those officials should become more sensitive towards moral ethics. This might have an immense impact on others parts of Korean society. Usually, government officials are trained by somehow ‘competition oriented examination’, which emphasizes the numerical external record. But I think the internal ethics part should be strengthened, too.

In addition, the integrity education for future generations is an important factor, too, because they use digital media a lot and are able to monitor the misbehavior of our authorities. So we need our young generation, too. Reformation of law usually goes ahead, but the cultural factor is still backwards, so in order to fill the gap between cultural practices and the new law, education should play a crucial role.

Are you optimistic about the next CPI 2017?

I don’t think we are going to improve dramatically. Usually, we need institutional reform first, and then it takes time to adjust to that institutional change and make an impact on everyday levels of society. Next year is too short to expect an impact – but in terms of five years, I’m optimistic.

Prof. Lee, thank you very much for the interview.


Prof. Jung-Ok Lee is a professor of Sociology, Dean of Social Sciences and Director of Center for Multicultural Studies at the Catholic University of Daegu in South Korea. She has served as a board member of the Korea DMZ Peace and Life Valley, EcoPeace Asia, Transparency International-Korea as well as the Women, Peace and Security Forum. Prof. Lee was the chairperson of the Korean Association of NGO Studies (2013 – 2014). In addition, she was in charge as a committee member for promoting civil society development at the Prime Minister’s office as well as for Seoul Metropolitan City.


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