“Shocking corruption survey results might hit the peak this year”

“Shocking corruption survey results might hit the peak this year”

An interview with criminologist Hak-Mo Park on the poor results of the Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) for South Korea and the tasks of the political, economic and religious elite in fighting corruption.

Interview conducted by Sanghak Lee, Board Member of TI-Korea

TI-Korea: According to the latest GCB, the level of corruption in Korea has been deteriorated recently (about 50% of respondents replied it has become worse, while 17% said it has improved). What is the key reason why Korean citizens believe that corruption is getting worse?

Hak-Mo Park: The results of the 2017 GCB are consistent with another important survey, the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The 2016 CPI did not reflect the situation of the Presidential scandal in Korea, but it showed the backward step by monitoring the retreat of anti-corruption policies that has continued during the Lee Myung-bag and Park Geun-hye regimes.

In fact, the results would have been more shocking if they had reflected the recent scandals as well. On the other hand, I suspect the corruption surveys might hit the peak this year portraying the ‘lost decade’ of anti-corruption policies in Korea. And I am sure the most shameful result is that Korean citizens believe corruption is getting worse in their country.

While the trial is ongoing regarding the scandal of former President Park Geun-hye and her friend Choi Soon-sil, recent reports show how the key national institutions – including the National Intelligence Service, which is directly linked to national security – have been viciously abused by the person in power. There is also a movement to investigate the suspicions in full swing regarding the so-called ‘Sajabang’ (Four Major Rivers Restoration Project, resource diplomacy, and defense industry) at an astronomical scale which has been already controversial at the time of the Lee Myung-bak administration. A plausible ‘political rhetoric’ of ‘political retaliation’ is emerging as a defensive logic. We may find many implications how politics are used as a shield against corruption and illegality.

If we consider citizens’ thoughts that corruption is getting worse in Korea, and if we simplify it, there might be two implications. First, people have experienced corruption that has never occurred before in the course of business affairs related to public officials, or they experienced corruption more frequently than before. Secondly, it could be that the government, the judicial authorities, and even the politicians’ responses to the corruption problems which have been issued in society are failing to meet the expectation of citizens.

Summarized as ‘Sangtaghacheong”, it is true that the lower-level civil servants in Korea are more free from corruption than compared to the past. Although it is necessary to conduct a more precise evaluation on the effectiveness of the Improper Solicitation and Graft Act (Kim Young-ran Act), at least until now, regarding the aspects of the law enforcement situation, it seems that corruption behavior is not getting worse in the work environment of general civil servants. Of course, it is true that there is still ridiculous personal misconduct. It is revealing that the results of the survey show that the ‘local councilors’ have been scored the dishonorable first place among all countries.

However, at least regarding the current situation, citizens’ viewpoint seems to be more in line with the second implication – that the government has failed to meet the expectations of the people. There is much disappointment and distrust amongst those who experience the continuation or deterioration of the political situation. Citizens feel somehow helpless, they experience power-related corruption, and this is reflected in the 2017 CPI and GCB results.

The levels of corruption in major sectors of Korean society (e.g. public officials, businesses, religious leaders) are at a shameful level. Compared with other countries, Korea gets a very bad report. Where do these results come from?

Hak-Mo Park: It is a fact that the evaluation of the corruption level of the President, Members of Parliament, governmental officials as well as members of local councils are worse than the evaluation of the corruption level of police or tax officials who are directly connected with citizens’ everyday lives. As I mentioned above, I believe that citizens are stigmatizing the political and bureaucratic elites by looking at the structural corruption of people in power and the so-called “social leadership” bureaucrats are involved in. And it seems that citizens believe that enterprises and religious leaders form one axis of that group. The ‘suspicion of corporate slush funds’ which has been going on might be a very good example. The religious leaders who are supposed to play the role of ‘light and salt’ within society fail to do their job, and they also reveal doing the same behaviors as the political elite. As a result, religious leaders have lost their own meaning.

Politics and public elites should be driven by responsible politics and accountability ethics, corporations should be driven by the spirit of social enterprise, and religion should be driven by their spiritual leadership – and all of these groups have to be the driving power for the integrity of our society. But all of that has not happened properly in the past 10 years and the result is the present situation we observe in Korean society.

The Korean government reveals a failure in corruption management. How can you explain the ineffectiveness of governmental policy?

Hak-Mo Park: It is no exaggeration to say that the Lee Myung-bak administration has intentionally reduced the anti-corruption function by establishing the “Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission of Korea” (ACRC) and therefore re-organizing the “Korea Independent Commission Against Corruption”, which succeeded the Anti-Corruption Committee. While still maintaining the ACRC, the Park Geun-hye government has set up a so-called “Government Joint Corruption Promotion Team” in order to commercialize the fight against corruption on a political level, rather than strengthening the anti-corruption function of the ACRC.

In order to develop national anti-corruption policies to a certain level, we need independent anti-corruption agencies which plan and implement anti-corruption policies with national integrity and consistency. The National Assembly supports and regulates by legislation, and the judiciary should be the last bastion of anti-corruption policies through law enforcement.

The most important thing is the government’s will for fighting corruption and installing integrity. If – for any reason – the anti-corruption intentions of the government are weakened or distorted, the anti-corruption system, legislation and even the execution of laws might be distorted as a knock-on effect. I think this is the present state of the political, administrative and judicial branches of Korea which expose the vulnerability to grand corruption. In order to restore national anti-corruption policies, establishing an independent anti-corruption organization is desirable and it is necessary to strengthen the role of public corruption investigation bodies (not limited to senior civil servants) under an anti-corruption organization.

Citizens’ role in expelling corruption got better scores than other items. In this regard, what kind of business do you think civil society organizations should focus on in the course of fighting corruption?

Hak-Mo Park: it was the ‘candlelight revolution’ that led to the end of the presidential crisis, and I think it is a very encouraging result that the GCB has evaluated the role of citizens positively evaluated in relation to the fight against corruption. I strongly believe that the integrity of Korean society depends on the role of civil society.

First, it is necessary to actively promote and spread anti-corruption consciousness within civil society. Especially anti-corruption education at schools is very important, but it is awkward to do an anachronistic anti-corruption ethics education or consciousness education such as the ‘national education charter’. Citizens’ organizations need to play a creative role in developing and spreading educational programs to raise critical thoughts about corruption and positive anti-corruption awareness in the realm from personal to power-related corruption.

Second, the lesson from the presidential scandal is that NGOs need to strengthen the monitoring function in connection with the planning and execution of national anti-corruption policies. Whether it is a presidential or a prime minister’s organization, the existing national anti-corruption bodies in our country have received only limited public confidence. In this regard, the civil society should take part in the anti-corruption mechanisms and act as a watchdog. This would contribute to public confidence towards national anti-corruption organizations.

What kind of effort is needed to improve indicators such as the CPI and GCB? I would appreciate if you could tell me what is most important.

Hak-Mo Park: It is said that the example of such a rapid economic development like it happened in Korea is unprecedented in the world. It also seems as if our society makes a rapid advance in anti-corruption realm keeping pace with democratization, but it has come together with a period of regressive reaction over the past decade. In the meantime, it is encouraging and hopeful that citizens’ perception of corruption and anti-corruption consciousness has improved.

However, the tangible and intangible barriers that citizens face when they try to fight corruption in their organizations are still high. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the key point of success or failure of national anti-corruption policy is hidden here. In revealing structural corruption and in breaking the chain of corruption, whistleblowers are the hidden major contributors to anti-corruption. It is necessary for civil society and government to dramatically change their perceptions and to fundamentally improve a whistleblower’s protection and support. When whistleblowers are not subjects of inconvenience which reveals an organization’s embarrassing parts but are treated with respect, and when these social and national efforts are fulfilled, the confidence in anti-corruption policies will be enhanced accordingly.

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Hak-Mo Park
Hak-Mo Park is a criminologist and expert on corruption and bribery issues. He currently works as a researcher for the Korean Institute of Criminology (KIC), the only national crime and criminal justice research institute in Korea. The institute operates under the Office of the Korean Prime Minister.

At his institute, Mr. Park chairs a working group dealing with anti-corruption policies. From 2001 until 2003, he worked as an academic assistant at the Institute of Criminology of Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany. 

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