Relaxing Anti-Graft Law: Rooting out Corruption or Rooting for More Roots?

Relaxing Anti-Graft Law: Rooting out Corruption or Rooting for More Roots?

Raphael Rashid
Raphael Rashid

Just one year after the launch of a groundbreaking anti-graft law, the South Korean government may be about to water down its terms. The Improper Solicitation and Graft Act was introduced to root out bribery and corruption in South Korea. It went into effect on Sept. 28, 2016, following months of public debate. But on Nov. 26, the Anti-Corruption & Civil Rights Commission (ACRC) announced a meeting the next day to discuss increasing the upper limit gift value limits set by the law.

The current law bans public servants, educators and journalists from receiving gifts over specified value limits according to the ‘30/50/100’ rule of thumb: free meals worth over 30,000 won ($28 dollars), gifts worth over 50,000 won ($46 dollars), and monetary congratulatory/condolence money or flowers valued at over 100,000 won ($92 dollars).

Now, the ACRC is considering raising the meal allowance and gift allowance limits to 50,000 and 100,000 won, respectively – but with the caveat that the latter increase would apply only to agricultural & livestock products. In order to avoid complaints under World Trade Organization rules, agricultural products will include those produced both domestically and abroad.

Results from the commission’s deliberation on the proposed amendment will be announced on Nov. 29. Separately, the National Assembly’s National Policy Committee reportedly announced on Nov. 27 that it had tabled an amendment bill to have public holiday gifts excluded from the law altogether. It remains to be seen how the bill will specifically define “gifts,” but several media have assumed it refers to the gift sets customarily exchanged at Chuseok (harvest festival) and Seollal (Lunar New Year), premium versions of which can include products such as premium beef cuts, fine wines and top-notch ginseng roots, costing hundreds of dollars. 

Before the law took effect last year, there was much handwringing — especially on the part of pro-business rightwing media — that it would dampen consumer sales especially during South Korea’s two festive seasons. According to research conducted by the Korea Rural Economic Institute nine months after the enforcement of the law, sales of agricultural produce gift sets — including fruit and Korean beef — during the 2017 Lunar New Year fell 25.8% on the previous year.

Yet in a survey conducted by Gallup Korea in June 2017, 68 percent of respondents said the law was a ‘good thing,’ compared to 18 percent who responded unfavorably.

The revision to the law, if passed, will certainly be welcomed by the agricultural community, which has been campaigning on the matter, but the act of doubling (let alone removing) permitted gift price limits deserves questioning.

Allowing an exception to the law could set a precedent for further changes to allow yet more expensive gifts. This, or worse, an exclusion, would go against the spirit of the law itself, which was designed to stop South Korea’s widespread culture of expensive gift giving, which serves as bribery in many cases.


Cover image: A ginseng box set, a popular gift during Korean Lunar New Year and Thanksgiving holidays (Source: Pixabay)

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