Gift Or Bribe? New South Korean Graft Law Treads On Tradition

Jewelry district in Seoul
Jewelry district in Seoul
Jason Strother

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.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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