≡ Menu

Korea’s Disease of the White Envelope…

… stuffed with money.

Donald Kirk at Asia Times explores this particularly virulent Korean disease especially in light of the latest scandal involving Roh Moo-hyun.  No former President of the Sixth Republic has been untarnished.

Although the amount of money talked about pales in comparison to the type of funds Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo syphoned from the system, the corruption is still deeply rooted.

Per the article:

But what is it, Koreans often ask themselves, about their society that makes corruption at the highest levels so appealing..? “It has to do with the culture,” said Kim Sung-hak, a Hanyang University scholar, wrestling with a response. “Corruption is condoned at the highest level. Korean culture is a social relationship, not a written contract.”

“Confucianism was the governing social philosophy,” said Kim. “Family and regional ties are very important… until or unless jealous foes get suspicious and manage to publicize and destroy the plot in their own drive for power.”

  • Won Joon Choe

    Mr. Kirk, as usual, displays that he has a pair, unlike the vast majority of his brethren:

    “…the real reason for the outrage against them was their role in suppressing the Kwangju revolt of May 1980, in which about 200 mostly young people were killed.”

    Notice two things here.

    First, he calls it a “revolt,” not the more euphemistic names that present-day Western (and domestic) reporters use.

    Second, he adheres to the government-announced number of a few hundred dead, rather than the thousands that the Leftist interest groups allege.

  • Maekchu

    Confucius was a bitter old asshole that hated women and thought everyone should kiss his ass because….well because he was old. His dogma of subjugating women, dominance via age in social matters (that he didn’t preach about until he was old) and taking care of your own at the expense of everyone else (I.E. acceptable corruption) still continues to fuck up Korea and other Asian countries 2,500 years after his death. The dude was a royal asshole but he did have some good lines for fortune cookies.

  • R. Elgin

    I love your thread title. It should be a short story title.

  • http://askakorean.blogspot.com thekorean

    Jeon Du-Hwan’s slush fund ~ $1 billion (assuming $1 = KRW 1,000)
    Roh Tae-Woo’s slush fund ~ $ 500 million
    Bribes to Roh Moo-Hyun and family ~ less than $10 million tops. Really, it would be all of three apartments in Gangnam.

    It is sad that this is the best silver lining, but it still is a progress of some sort.

  • NetizenKim

    But what is it, Koreans often ask themselves, about their society that makes corruption at the highest levels so appealing when so often people wind up in jail? “It has to do with the culture,” said Kim Sung-hak, a Hanyang University scholar, wrestling with a response. “Corruption is condoned at the highest level. Korean culture is a social relationship, not a written contract.”

    Scholar Kim goes back to several thousand years of dynastic rule tempered by Confucianism.

    “Confucianism was the governing social philosophy,” said Kim. “Family and regional ties are very important. Here the personal guarantee carries more weight than an employee contract. Employees are not supposed to betray the president of the company.”

    Or the president of the country, the ultimate father figure, to whom the “envelope”, whether passed through a relative or friend or aide, should assure a full return on the investment – until or unless jealous foes get suspicious and manage to publicize and destroy the plot in their own drive for power.

    I find it surprising that such statements were made by a so-called Korean scholar. Why is it that Confucianism is the end-all and be-all Theory of Everything used to explain all that is strange, different, and confounding about Korea? Because this is what happens when even a Korean scholar panders to Western audiences and conforms to Orientalism. That’s easier than conducting critical, independent analysis.

    Corruption is an endemic problem in most Third World and emerging countries. It is a huge reason why sub-Saharan Africa is mired in perpetual backwardness. I suppose we can blame that on Confucianism also, going by this faulty logic.

    Confucius himself would have denounced corruption. His ideals of reciprocity were tempered with attenuating notions of li or righteousness. Let us even take a page from an example of the Occident’s version of Confucianism: Catholicism. During Martin Luther’s time, the Church had institutionalized corruption, called “indulgences”, also known as bribing God in order to ensure heaven for deceased relations who might be stuck in Purgatory.

    It would appear that corruption is a universal trait among pre-Enlightenment stage societies.

    The reason why corruption is so endemic in Korea is not so much because of Confucius’s teachings but rather the Orient did not have influential thinkers along the lines of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke, who formulated Social Contract Theory and helped establish the concept of Rule of Law. Oriental tradition also lacked robust conceptualizations of liberty and a formalized understanding of the relationship between liberty and the state.

    In the case of Korea’s political leaders, I suspect that a large part of the background motivation for these staggering manifestations of corruption may be psychological. In a book written by James Fallows about Japan, he noted that some nouveau-riche Japanese had a habit of turning up the heat very high in their homes and cars. It was often to the point where the heat was intolerable for others. When asked about this, one Japanese explained that it was because he still remembered suffering extreme cold during times of poverty in the past. In Germany, the generation that lived through harsher periods in the past would stockpile hordes of food in their homes, as if to ward off some unforeseen, impending disaster. Could it be that many of Korea’s older generations, including heads of state, still recall childhoods of extreme poverty, and hence the need to amass hordes of cash in the form of slush funds? Or maybe it’s just plain old greed, who knows?

    But really, in the defense of Confucius, his philosophy is not the one-size-fits-all explanation for EVERYTHING messed up about Korea. That’s like blaming Rene Descarte for atheism.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936

    Thanks RE. I got the “Korean Disease” part from Breen.

  • Won Joon Choe

    theKorean at #4,

    How much of Chun & Roh’s slush funds have been actually used for personal enrichment? The numbers are indeed astonishing, but a lot depends on how the money was used. I have actually not followed the case that closely, but I’ve been told by someone who is close to Chun (an admittedly biased source but I am incline to say more objective than the Leftist press in Seoul) when the story began to break out that very little of that went to buying luxury condos. And who knows? We may be at the mere proverbial tip of the iceberg with Roh’s corruption.

  • t_song

    What I don’t understand is how could Prez Roh not know what’s going on with his wife’s life, to the extent he wouldn’t know that $10 million or so was being slushed in?

    Suddenly, I’m thinking back to that awkward and creepy of Roh with all those young (mostly unattractive) agasshis.

    I mean, I can sort of believe that HIllary didn’t know what Bill was up to, but could the Goddamn president, the guy in power with all the access, would essentially be duped by his own wife? Does this guy have the worst 눈치 ever?

  • NetizenKim

    What was it that Astor Brooke, the philanthropist, said about her stewardship over her late husband’s wealth in distributing funds to various charities and foundations? Money is like manure….you have to spread it around.

    What it is it going to take for Korea to see a new class of successful entrepreneurial tycoons turned philanthropists in the tradition of Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller, or Bill Gates? A deliberate cultivation of a sense of Christian charity. The notion of Old Money is absent in Korean society. Korea is still nouveax-riche, a nation of former peasants who barely made it out of extreme poverty.

  • Won Joon Choe

    NetizenKim #5,

    I think Huntington addressed your issue in defending himself against those who argued that his “Clash of Civilization” thesis was over-broad.

    To be succinct, paradigms need not explain everything with perfect precision but needs to be more comprehensive and more accurate/plausible than its alternatives. And in many respects, the Confucian or neo-Confucian thesis may have greater explanatory power than its alternatives, if used in a circumspect manner.

    But I also agree to a certain extent with this point you make:

    “It would appear that corruption is a universal trait among pre-Enlightenment stage societies.”

    I would add that not only corruption, but many traits associated with Confucianism or “Asian values”–such as privileging the group over the individual, the emphasis on order over liberty, etc.–form the stable of pre-modern Western values as well.

  • Won Joon Choe

    “Staple,” NOT “stable.”

  • Sonagi

    @ Netizen Kim

    Comment #5 is right on the mark. I roll my eyes whenever Confucianism and corruption get mentioned in the same sentence, and by a Korean no less. Didn’t know Asians could be guilty of Orientalism.

  • NetizenKim

    #10
    WJK:
    To be succinct, paradigms need not explain everything with perfect precision but needs to be more comprehensive and more accurate/plausible than its alternatives. And in many respects, the Confucian or neo-Confucian thesis may have greater explanatory power than its alternatives, if used in a circumspect manner.

    I see a lot of trouble in blaming contemporary social ills on Dead Oriental Males. I think we need better explanations, a “synthesis” if you will, that are more relevant to present reality.

    I believe that nation-states can be likened to individuals. Just as individuals go through different stages of development so do nations. Called it Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs writ-large for nation-states. I think, in the case of Korea’s repeated and seemingly endemic cases of corruption constantly materializing from the woodwork, the cognitive dissonance wouldn’t seem as severely jarring if we were discussing, say Ghana. But as recently as 40 years ago, South Korea was indeed Ghana.

    Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs puts basic stages such as physical needs and safety at the bottom of his pyramid while “self-actualization” appears at the very top. To translate the vocabulary of this hierarchy into terms of discussing nation-states, physical needs and safety would be economic/industrial development, rise in per capita GDP, living standards, and national defense. Self-actualization for individuals lists characteristics such as morality, creativity, problem-solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts. Again, put into nation-state terms, I believe these would turn out to be elements of a mature, liberal, democratic civic society such as rule of law, checks and balances, equality, liberty, protection of rights, innovation, etc.

    I think it is fair to say that while Korea has managed to fulfill the lower stages of the pyramid very well in a very short amount of time the upper stages have not entirely come into fruition on a level commensurate with Korea’s level of development. This gap causes cognitive dissonance for observers of Korea and it probably causes social stresses for Koreans themselves in ways that they don’t completely understand.

    I think with this understanding of socio-political issues such as corruption or the status of women in Korean society, it offers a far more rational and realistic understanding of what’s going on. Also, not only does it offer and explanation, it also addresses the question of: “OK, where do we go from here?” It presents many questions pertaining to destiny for Korean people as a society. Can higher level development keep up with lower level development? Is this a built-in Darwinian pressure on Korean society? Imagine if you will, East Asian, all highly developed, technologically advanced, and armed to the teeth, but given towards strident, nationalistic passions. Will East Asia, including Japan and China, be able to figure out the perils of out-of-control nationalism without having to go through the Western-style “learning-experience” of two major wars? Do East Asians have to evolve abilities for faster social/moral/political development or else face self-destruction?

  • http://www.jdlink.co.kr Linkd

    Imagine if you will, East Asian, all highly developed, technologically advanced, and armed to the teeth, but given towards strident, nationalistic passions.

    The US has imagined this – that’s why its military is here. The East Asian leaders have also imagined this. That’s why they want the US military here. Note that those leaders also receive the political benefits of whipping up nationalism, knowing that the presence of US forces ensures that there’s always a mom on the playground to ensure that no one really gets hurt. East Asia does not exist in a bubble.

    Mind you, I’m really starting to question the stability of the current ‘world order’ in which the US takes, by acclamation, the role of the grown-up, but that’s another topic.

  • dogbertt

    A deliberate cultivation of a sense of Christian charity. The notion of Old Money is absent in Korean society. Korea is still nouveax-riche, a nation of former peasants who barely made it out of extreme poverty.

    Korea could do worse than adopt the Golden Rule.

  • yuna

    What I don’t understand is how could Prez Roh not know what’s going on with his wife’s life, to the extent he wouldn’t know that $10 million or so was being slushed in?

    I can understand this. Many Korean men aren’t aware how their wife manages the finances, especially with lending and borrowing to acquaintances, various 계 ‘s(the Korean system where people pool their money together – another big problem) and their children’s education.. Often the women have secret emergency money/account stashed away like Mrs Squirrels.

  • wjk, 검은 머리 외국인

    뉴욕의 최원준 변호사는 군대도 안갓으면서 군사 쿠대타 세력을 찬양함.

  • wjk, 검은 머리 외국인

    유명해지삼

  • Sonagi

    Will East Asia, including Japan and China, be able to figure out the perils of out-of-control nationalism without having to go through the Western-style “learning-experience” of two major wars?

    East Asia comprised one theater of the Second World War and apparently didn’t learn much from all the previous regional wars.

  • silver surfer

    “It has to do with Korean culture.” Yeah, we know. So that means you’re never going to do anything about it?

  • silver surfer

    By the way, note to R J Koehler: can we have links that open a new window rather than changing website? Personally, I like to keep the site I’m browsing on display until I choose to move on, rather than being sent elsewhere just because I want to see what you’re talking about. Perhaps I’m not alone in this?

  • http://www.law4u.net/winnie ✿⊹⊱⋛☃⋚⊰⊹✿
  • http://www.law4u.net/winnie ✿⊹⊱⋛☃⋚⊰⊹✿
  • http://www.law4u.net/winnie ✿⊹⊱⋛☃⋚⊰⊹✿
  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936

    SS,

    You can do it yourself. Click the link with the right mouse button. Select opwn new tab or open new window.

  • NetizenKim

    #12
    Sonagi:
    Comment #5 is right on the mark. I roll my eyes whenever Confucianism and corruption get mentioned in the same sentence, and by a Korean no less. Didn’t know Asians could be guilty of Orientalism.

    Holy Knishkabobs, Sonagi unconditionally agrees with something I wrote. That only took about what….5 years? T’is a milestone of sorts.

    I conclude my tirade with the following important service announcements:

    The man who in view of gain thinks of righteousness; who in the view of danger is prepared to give up his life; and who does not forget an old agreement however far back it extends – such a man may be reckoned a complete man.

    He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it.

    They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.

    To see what is right, and not to do it, is want of courage or of principle.

    Things that are done, it is needless to speak about…things that are past, it is needless to blame.

    Study the past if you would define the future.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936

    If there is any silver lining in this sad case it’s that although corruption in Africa and Latin America results in politicians taking money and being horrible administrators, Korean corruption at the very least, still results in competent government administration.

    None of this is, of course, any justification. All this passing of the white envelope, with the exception of weddings, has to end. I’m very skeptical if Korea will ever reach U.S. or Western European standards any time soon.

  • NetizenKim

    WK:
    I’m very skeptical if Korea will ever reach U.S. or Western European standards any time soon.

    Wangkon, corruption falls under the general category of what Political Economists call “inefficiencies”. An engine that burns a good chunk of its fuel on overcoming friction is an inefficient engine. Similarly, bribery is like the wasted fuel (money) used to overcome corruption (friction) within the political-economic engine. This system rewards the well-connected and the privileged rather than merit.

    Ideally, Korea (and East Asia in general) should not be trying to blindly copy the US/Western European model either. One of the benefits of not having fully caught up with the West is hindsight and the opportunity to learn from and avoid that which where the West has gone clearly wrong. This is not acknowledged nearly enough by Asian intellectuals and technocrats, in my non-humble opinion. Bureaucratic over-regulation, decision-making deadlock pertaining to matters of policy caused by endless deliberation in the public forum, and the practice of litigation as a extreme competitive sport are also major “inefficiencies” that afflict American society. Although American liberal democratic civil society boasts many strengths and there are many American institutions worthy of emulation, American Exceptionalism is a myth.

    Once you reject American Exceptionalism, then you enter into a Brave New World. Because now one has to define a new reality. Mind you, it’s not easy. Europe herself endured a period of darkness for about a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Christianity presided over the slow agony of transforming pagan barbarians into Europeans until they reconnected with their long neglected intellectual heritage in the Greek classics.

    I believe that if East Asia blindly follows the Western model then East Asia will repeat much of the same errors that the West has made. It’s already happened. Look at China. Blindly repeating the Industrial Revolution now has them almost belatedly recognizing the perils of environmental disaster. The “London Fog” of yore is now the “Beijing Smog”.

    First of all, East Asia needs to reject the assumption that the Western tradition is all superior (Occidentialism). It also needs to question assumption that Oriental tradition is all inferior (Neo-Orientalism). At the same time, one also needs to recognize that there are many aspects of Western tradition worthy of emulation and there are many aspects of Oriental tradition that should be thrown into the trash heap. In order to do this one has to be fluent in both Eastern and Western history and the classics of both civilizations. The duty of the 21st century East Asian intellectual is to distill the ethical precepts of Oriental classics, merged them with the best practices of Western method, and forge a new synthesis.

    On a personal note, I believe that the biggest stumbling block for many Asians is comprehending, embracing, and internalizing the meaning of Liberty. I remember a discussion that I had with my devout friend Taek while watching a movie which was a dramatization of the events surrounding the development of the Magna Carta in England around 1200. He thought that the actions of the English nobles in demanding that the monarch adhere to a charter of rights contradicted Christian teachings, citing Matt 22:21 (Render unto Caesar…). In many ways, the Korean church in America teaches a flawed version of Christianity, what I would characterize as Christianity syncretized with Neo-Confucianism. Many gyopo’s think like this. In a land founded on civil disobedience and rebellion against authority, many Asians are mindlessly and stubbornly accepting of authority to a fault. The fact of the matter is James has clearly not read his scripture adequately because Acts 5:29 states We must obey God rather than any human authority.. It would appear that Peter, whom Christ chose as his Rock, defied authority. He challenged not only Roman rule but the Jewish Orthodox establishment of his day.

    If we reject American Exceptionalism then what’s left? What model of perfection should we aspire towards? It is what scripture calls the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God or a New Heavens/New Earth restored to the pre-Fall state, where Nature has been restored to a state of shalom.

    In terms of a discussion on Political Economy, the Kingdom of God is a theoretical Utopian society where all inefficiencies have been eradicated. Under this new standard, this model, bribery and corruption has been supplanted by charity and grace. Tax is an inefficiency. Sales tax, in its current form, is a legal form of bribery that you give to the State in order to buy something. Insurance is also an inefficiency. It is essentially institutionalized gambling founded upon actuarial science. Most importantly, monetary interest, or usury, is an inefficiency. Interest is the conversion of time into money. Time is a valuable commodity because it is in limited supply. As the old saying goes, there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. But what happens if time is unlimited? What happens if you have an infinite supply of time? What happens if you have eternal life? What would this theoretical Utopian society look like if everyone had an infinite supply of time? What are the governing dynamics of such a society? What would its government, social, and economic institutions look like? Even the most well-organized and well-run societies currently on Earth fall short of this model, which hasn’t even been fully explored or hashed out yet, but there are small hints and clues which point in that general direction.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936

    NK,

    I don’t have the time to match your response, but I actually believe that Korea needs to adopt more “western” standards to it’s sociological viewpoint on bribery. The entire bribery issues is really one of shadowy government relationships with the rich and powerful to curry favor. Why must Korea make the change? I did an 80 page senior thesis on the East Asian Economic Crisis. One day I will make the whole document available via the web, but my central point was this: Korea’s chief reason for being affected by the economic contagion in 1998 was because of the the close and shadowy relationship businesses had with government and the lack of transparency with these relationships. As long as there is a perception that Korea operates in this manner, there will always be a risk that foreign investors will pull their money out in a quick and damaging way.

    Furthermore, the total economic cost is more than the money used to “lubricate” government. One big one is the “Korea Discount,” where Korean companies are valued 20-50% below comparable Western companies, is because foreign investors don’t really know how much money Korean companies truly make or what the shadowly relationship with government may be. Thus, one of the litmus tests of a developing country vs. a developed country is political and financial transparency, a test that many believe Korea fails.

    Following the West’s rules may not be fair at the end of the day, but what is or is not fair is not relevant. In order for Korea to grow, it needs foreign investment, capital, know how, etc. and Korea does not have the size to dictate what is fair or not fair (i.e. China) or did it develop when these rules were in the formulation stage (i.e. Japan). It’s a shit deal, but it’s the construct Korea has to operate in.

  • NetizenKim

    #29

    WK,
    Someday I should like to read your senior thesis. Your points are well-received and I agree with them wholeheartedly. There has to be a concerted movement within Korea to eradicate corruption and increase transparency. It begins at the grassroots level. People need to be educated why the white envelope practice is bad and ultimately harmful to society. It is ironic that Confucianism should be blamed for such widespread corruption in Korea. Another hackneyed characterization of Korea is that it is a collective society, where the group is regarded more than the individual. Objectively, the white envelope practice is a supremely selfish, individualistic behavior and the very antithesis of a group-oriented society that claims to have read its Analects correctly. It is a social pathology that takes full advantage of the established framework of relational hierarchy laid down by Confucianism, but stripped of the moral/ethical component of Confucianism, utilizing it as a conduit for the pursuit of plain old greed, which is a universal sin. I am not entirely clear either how the eradication of the ubiquitous white envelope can be effectively implemented because the pitfalls are not immediately obvious. But it is clear that in a society where such a low-level practice is widespread and acceptable, the mind is even hazier about evaluating the ethics of bribery in higher places of power.

    But ultimately, your points about the importance of transparency in politics and business as well as unintended consequences such as the Korea Discount are not anything new that hasn’t been already said. I also do not share your pessimistic doubt that Korea will be unable to integrate a robust regime of transparency in the near term. The very fact that the justice system is actively investigating, probing, and prosecuting instances of shadowy, illicit quid pro quo is an indication that Korea takes this matter very seriously, at least. If nothing else, the fact that Korea’s livelihood in terms of foreign investment and business with the outside world depends on Korea getting her shit together doublequicktime, especially in these troubling economic times worldwide, will be an added incentive, as well as the general concern for the international image projected by Korea at the official level.

    What I take issue to is your insistence and blind faith in Korea adopting the West’s rules on the West’s terms. With all due respect, this is a rather short-sighted mentality borne of sheer expediency and hand-wringing over the Korea Discount. Furthermore, the scope of my discussion is not centered solely upon Korea but the entire region of East Asia as a trading bloc. My political-economic calculus also takes into consideration that while the West remains significant and influential trading partners, Korea does not trade only with the West. The current ongoing crisis is reshaping the familiar contours of power and interest. China is actively seeking to de-couple itself from over-dependence on Western markets because the crisis has brought into sharp relief the vulnerabilities of the world’s de-facto economic engine which is China being primarily being the world’s workshop and purchaser of US debt while the US and rest of the world primarily consumes China’s manufactured goods.

    In many instances, the US is not the ideal paragon of transparency and rational processes that you seem to imagine it to be. Sheer complexity wrought by over-regulation, over-litigation, arbitration of policy-making by competing lobbies, federal/state budgets infested with pork-barrel earmarks can be just as effective at creating opaqueness as Korean cronyism and is much harder to reform. This is clearly not the model to emulate either.

    The East simply copies the West in terms of technology and this hampers Eastern innovation. For God’s sake, this pattern should not be repeated also when it comes to political-economic institutions and overall sociological development. The East should pay heavy attention to the hindsight. The East should forge a new synthesis based upon a merging of the best practices of both Western and Eastern traditions of methodology and ethics. Finally, the basis of a civil society and the impetus toward reform should be grounded upon a firm, reliable foundation of a well thought-out synthesis, not ephemeral, short-term concerns such as the Korea Discount or international image. But to my ongoing frustration, I continually find that Koreans (even supposedly educated gyopos!) can’t seem to grasp this concept.

  • Pingback: The Three Wise Monkeys » Blog Archive » So this is Christmas—Belief in Korea: The Yoido Full Gospel Church pt. 2

  • Pingback: SeoulPodcast #55: The Acting Ajosshi | SeoulPodcast