Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye could face years behind bars for her alleged role in a massive corruption scandal. Prosecutors say that in return for political favors, she pressured business leaders, like the head of Samsung, to give her close friend millions of dollars as well as at least one very expensive present-an $800 000 thoroughbred horse.
Gift giving is pretty common in Korea. But sometimes the gifts come with strings attached. Last year, a new law took effect, drawing a line between a gift and a bribe. It’s aimed at wiping out corruption, but some business owners say it goes too far and attacks a cherished tradition.
Jason Strother has the story from Seoul.
Stella came to South Korea from Europe to do a PhD on a government scholarship. She says when she arrived, she found that the degree came with some “unofficial” costs.
“I heard that there should be some kind of payment every time that my committee of professors would meet to discuss my thesis.”
Stella is not her real name. She works for that same university now, and so her revelation is sensitive. Stella says she confronted her professors about these payments, but it didn’t go well.
“I was explicitly told by one of the members of my committee that I should pay this money. Because this was Korean custom and I should take this as normal,” she said.
So every time she met her advisors, she handed over envelopes, stuffed with cash.
Stella says this custom cost her about 900 bucks over a six month period. Her professors graciously accepted her “gifts” and she got her degree.
South Korea has a tradition of gift giving that some people take advantage of.
“They key issue is when it spills over to gift giving, or the burden to give a gift when there’s an authority relationship,” commented Joongi Kim, a law professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
Kim says this kind of corrupt gift giving is now on the decline, thanks to a sweeping anti graft law.
The Improper Solicitation and Graft Act was born out of an investigation into the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry, which killed around 300 passengers. It was found that the ship’s parent company influenced port officials who let the unsafe vessel sail.
The anti graft law is meant to keep educators, journalists and public officials on the straight and narrow. It places restrictions on the monetary value of presents that they can give and receive -- violations are a criminal offence.
Since it came into effect a year ago, government data shows that 188 violators have been penalized.
That might seem like a small number, but law professor Joongi Kim says the law has created an atmosphere where people with authority are now scared to ask for gifts.
He adds, though, that in some cases the expansive law seems too strict.
“If a elementary school student gives a flower to a teacher that they like, if the teacher accepts that flower it would be illegal under the law.”
And the law is now hurting florists. Ms. Yang, who only wants to give her surname, runs a flower shop in downtown Seoul and says many of her customers were civil servants.
Ever since the law took effect she says orders have plunged, especially for large bouquets that are given as gifts at weddings and funerals. They can cost up to 300 dollars.
Yang says farmers and deliverymen are going broke and she’s had to stop hiring part timers.
“I’m desperate,” she said. “I’ve been running my shop for 10 years and I’m seeing other florists that have been in this part of town for 20 or 30 years close because of the law. I know it’s good for our society, but its killing small businesses. Giving gifts, like flowers, is just a way Koreans show how much they care.”
Aside from flower shops, tokens of appreciation are picked up at supermarkets, too.
Hwang Yeop, who heads the Hanwoo or Korean beef Association, SAYS the anti-graft law also hurts his industry.
“Gift sets of Korean beef are traditionally given during the lunar new year and the Chuseok-thanks giving, holiday in the fall. It’s a special gift because it’s expensive and has a unique taste. I support the law in principle, but there needs to be some exceptions made for gifts like these,” he complained.
There’s a roughly 50-dollar limit on gifts you can give to civil servants, professors and reporters- you can’t buy Hanwoo that cheap, he says.
There’s a cap on how much government officials can spend on wining and dining guests, Hwang says fewer people are ordering Korean beef at barbeque joints. The max is about $30 per meal.
Even though the law seems strict, it has popular support, according to polls here. And its making South Korea less corrupt, says You Han-beom of Transparency International Korea.
He admits that it’s negatively affecting some industries, but he says the price for flower bouquets and gift packs of Korean beef were artificially high to begin with in part because government officials weren’t using their own money to buy them.
“A lot of tax payers’ money was spent on things like flowers and Korean beef. It was substantial, so it needed to be stopped,” he stated. “Yes, this is going to cause some pain for small businesses at first, but in the long run they will find ways to meet normal consumer demand.”
He tells me the anti graft law won’t kill Korea’s tradition of gift giving.
On my way out of his office, You hands me a small, wrapped box. I remind him that as a reporter in Korea, I can’t legally accept presents over 50 dollars. He says it’s just a tube of toothpaste, I’ll be alright.