By Don Southerton, Korea Expert Witness Editor and Chief Blogger
With the death of former Korean president Noh Moo-hyun, many are saddened. His rise to power and position was underscored by a clean record as an activist and public servant. Noh, unlike many in Korea’s political and business arena, was untainted by graft and corruption. Soon after leaving office, Noh and those closest to him came under attack for taking millions while in office. One wonders why someone with such high moral standards eventually succumb to taking illegal monies–even if the money was for his family. I’m still puzzled–”why?” On one level, the high price of maintaining status in a nation of high social stratification is costly–forcing some to any means to keep up with their peers or expectations of others. Another reason for others might be a zero-sum mindset forged by decades of Japanese colonialism and then war.
Interestingly, several day before the former president’s untimely death, this Korea Times article by John Hur sheds some light on Korean bribe-taking and corruption.
As regularly as the Rite of Spring but as dreaded as the Black Plague, Korea is just now being visited by Corruption Fever again.
The nation is awash with daily reports of arrests and summonses of those in the higher circle of government and power, both past and present, for their bribe-giving and bribe-taking.
Once again, the nation by turns is fascinated, horrified and outraged by the revelations and, not surprisingly, resigned to the fact of “Korea the Corrupt,” suspected to include everyone, from Presidents to lowly teachers and beat-cops.
In the eyes of the world where national corruption is measured and ranked, Korea’s place for corruption is shared by such low-brow countries as Botswana, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bhutan and Costa Rica, not exactly the constellation of stars among whom Korea wishes to find its neighbors.
These nations are poor and backward enough in all aspects of their existence and a bit of corruption is expected and explained by that fact. For all its aspirations for upward mobility in world rankings and its substantial progress in democracy and modernity, Korea’s corruption is wholly unexplainable and seems to be one major albatross it cannot shake off.
Naturally, every thinking person wonders: What makes Korea so “corrupt”? Are Koreans biologically susceptible to bribery? No, Korea’s DNA structure does not deviate from the rest of humanity.
Do Korean laws encourage corruption? No, Korea’s laws are pretty severe and culprits are regularly hauled to prison.
Do Koreans justify dishonesty as a way of life? No, Korea’s culture values honesty as much as any other nation, advanced or Third World.
Is Korea still a backward country and not as modern as it claims? No, Korea’s political-economic-cultural system is immaculately modern, nothing backward about it.
All such surface and obvious questions and answers end in the negative.
Corruption in Korea, so perennial and so irresistible, cannot be explained by any of the known methods of investigation. We must search somewhere else, deeper in our query and bolder in our frame of mind.
For me, I must confess I have never spent so much of my own power of thinking as I did on the issue of Korean corruption. Every question I raised was either raised many times before or produced nothing enlightening, and every answer I received proved to be either nothing new or something futile. I had to go to uncharted territory in search of the reason for Korea’s unshakable corruption.
Here is what I found at the end of my quest: What the world calls corruption is in the very nature of Korea, in being Korean and in “Korean-ness.” It is in the way Koreans think about, feel toward, speak to, do business with and interact with other Koreans.
To put it in the simplest terms possible, allow me to present the conclusion first and in capital letters: EVERY TIME A KOREAN IS WITH ANOTHER KOREAN, JUST BY THE VERY FACT OF THEIR BOTH BEING KOREAN, A CONSPIRACY FOR CORRUPTION IS HATCHED.
Before anyone thinks about crucifying me, let me explain.
Being Korean is quite different from being American, to take the most extreme opposite example. When two Americans get together, the distance between the two that must be bridged is so great that no quick, easy conspiracy is possible, although a business deal can be struck fast.
For the two Americans, getting to know about the other would take a long time, requiring a look into their educational, religious, career and financial background and experiences, among other things.
The person you are looking at could be anything, a total stranger with a background and intention one could never guess. All Americans are basically strangers and unknown quantities to one another. It takes much talking, exchanging and interacting with each other to get even the slightest idea about other Americans.
When two Koreans get together, such search-and-discover processes are instantly bypassed. Why? The fact that the two are Korean is good enough. They speak the language so difficult to learn by outsiders, as if they are speaking in code.
They share the historical experience of being Korean that is so deeply embedded in their hearts and souls, forbidden to outsiders.
They firmly believe in the destiny of Korea and Koreans and another Korean is merely a member of this world-exclusive group sworn to absolute secrecy and loyalty.
No two Korean strangers can meet at a bus stop and strike up a nonsense conversation with “it’s a nice day, today.”
There is not enough distance among them to be casual or formal with each other. All Koreans are instant brothers, of varying degrees of closeness, as there are really no strangers among Koreans, by the simple fact that they are Korean.
A nonsense topic like weather would be totally silly among them. Because of their silent mutual understanding, commonly observed among long-married couples, no conversation, casual or otherwise, is necessary among Korean strangers.
Being Korean is unrelated to legal definition or official citizenship paper. No foreigner, even one who has lived in Korea for 70 years, most of them as Korean citizens, speaking Korean fluently, would ever be able to share in this instant oneness of Koreans. The Korean language is an unbreakable code, to which only native Koreans have a password and key.
Two Americans can strike a friendship, across different age, race or religion barriers, because they find something in common, such as in politics, hobby, intellectual philosophy, and so forth and consider each other friends.
In Korea, all such associations must be native, as if in blood-bond, sworn to uphold unto the death. Through school ties, in regional connections, in family networks, and in other such ways, Koreans nurture their Korean-ness with one another. Business deals, partnerships and contracts materialize only after these primary conditions are met. The higher circle of government, industry, culture and education merely formalizes these primeval ties embedded in blood.
When two Koreans meet casually, the understanding between the two requires no formal introduction or information.
Instantly, they share a trillion pieces of Korean genetics between them, and conspiracy for bribery, mutual consolation, whatever is hatched, without preambles. It would be unthinkable for one Korean employee, working at an American company, reporting the wrongdoing of another Korean simply because the act is illegal. Being Korean is above all moral, legal, philosophical considerations.
Two Korean employees can run circles around their American employer in their Korean conspiracy.
Korean culture, all things that occur in Korean society and that Koreans do, is a huge cauldron of conspiracy among the members, shared truly and deeply only among those who are born with the password and key.
The nation of Korea is so exclusive in its own Korean-ness that outsiders have only the vaguest idea of what is truly going on the Korean mind. Generally, outsiders read the version that is officially translated for them, which says very little of substance.
When one says to the other “bo-wa-juseyo,” which is literally “look at me,” but the Korean meaning is always conspiratorial, as in “look out for me,” generally an adjunct to bribe-offering or asking for something illegal or unethical. This expression, so common among Koreans, could be said by a CEO seeking special government favors, a parent bribing a teacher for a higher grade for his child, a speeding motorist trying to bribe the cop, and any number of situations in which one Korean uses his secret code with another Korean. Simply put, all Koreans are brothers of a secret order and what transpires among them is a normal exchange among brothers.
Most Koreans find it difficult to conspire with Americans. English does not allow that secret bond that the Korean language instantly allows among Koreans. Hence, two Koreans find it unbearable to speak to each other in English, even if they are fluent, if their native tongue is Korean as the language overpowers English in its secrecy-shrouded password and key.
When Koreans are together, in their Korean-ness that makes up their cultural blood and genetics, everything that passes among them is a matter of conspiracy, something nobody else in the world but them understands.
Their being Korean supersedes all other considerations, be they moral, ethical, legal or rational, in their most exclusive membership in the world. In their exclusive darkness, what the world calls corruption is simply a normal way of sharing the secret code of life that only Koreans understand and possess and pass onto other Koreans.
A new-born Korean child is thus ready to be inducted into the world’s most exclusive, almost-impossible-to-join secret club called Korea. There is no escape from it. One commenter became so desperate with the breaking news of corruption that she cried out: “Is this Korea’s curse?”
The only escape is if the Koreans are lucky enough to have been raised by adoptive foreign families. When they return to their native land for a visit, both they and the Korean hosts find not a shred of commonness between them, much less a foundation for conspiracy of understanding, and they part company as strangers. For all of Korea, this is no solution.
So, this is what my quest has revealed to me. How else can we explain why these intelligent, well-educated and humane people called Koreans cannot escape their crucible called corruption?
As for the solution: In medicine, explaining why death occurs is no solution to a dying man, but in sociology explaining why Behavior X occurs is a solution in itself as nothing in society ever occurs without conscious human will. No other nation on Earth has a stronger will to effect a change in its society than does Korea. So there is hope.
Comments? Please share your thoughts.