SEOUL — Stella came to South Korea on a government scholarship to do a PhD. She says when she arrived from Europe, 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 did not want to reveal her real name since she works for that same university now. She 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," she said. "This was Korean custom and I should take this as normal."
So every time she met her advisors, she handed over envelopes, stuffed with cash. Stella says this custom cost her about $900 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, notes Joongi Kim, a law professor at Seoul's Yonsei University. "The key issue is when there's an authority relationship," he notes. There are some hopeful signs that the practice of small and large bribes is declining since a sweeping anti-graft law after a probe of the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry, which killed around 300 passengers. Investigators blamed corruption for allowing the ship to sail despite inadequate safety.
The sunken ferry in 2014 — Photo: South Korean Coast Guard
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 offense.
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."
The law may actually even be hurting the florist business. 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. "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. Assortments of Korean beef are traditionally given during the lunar new year and the Chuseok-thanksgiving holiday in the fall. "I support the law in principle," he said. "But there needs to be some exceptions made for gifts like these."
Prices for flowers and Korean beef were artificially high.
There's a roughly $50 limit on gifts you can give to civil servants, professors and reporters. There's also 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 maximum is about $30 per meal.
The law 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 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 taxpayer 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."
Still, You Han-beom says the anti-corruption law won't kill Korea's tradition of gift giving.
On my way out of his office, he hands me a small, wrapped box. I remind him that as a reporter in Korea, I can't legally accept presents over $50. He says it's just a tube of toothpaste, so I'll be alright.