Combating a Culture of Corruption

Before President Park, there was President Lee Myung-Bak. According to the New York Times, seven months before the end of his term, President Lee had to issue a public apology for bribery allegations against his brother, former aides, and acquaintances. Before President Lee, there was President Roh Moohyun. His corruption scandal ultimately, and tragically, led him to end his own life. When such corruption scandals haunt president after president, governor after governor, and CEO after CEO, we can no longer dismiss them as exceptions: they are indicative of a culture of corruption.

The corrupt, backhand dealings characterizing modern Korean politics is a systemic failure. Though mostly a political issue, the problem is also partially rooted in cultural and social dimensions. History has proven that powerful reform requires powerful catalysts – a vocal, passionate, energetic agent of change. From the 3.1 Independence Movement to the 5.18 Democratization Movement, the young people of Korea have spearheaded such reforms for much of modern Korean history. For decades, we were the voice of our people when our people were pleading for change – and our time has come again. To address the burgeoning culture of corruption besieging the Korean government, our nation must first eradicate Confucian hierarchies in politics, for such hierarchies prevent young, idealistic, and visionary blood from entering politics.

The ancient philosopher Kongzi defined the essence of Confucianism using five relationships – ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, friend to friend. A good Confucian must know his place in the social order and uphold all duties associated with it. In the modern eye, such principles may seem repressive or undemocratic. But back in the Chinese Warring States Period, when ambitious regional rules were burning farmland and slaughtering peasants left and right in order to climb up the ladder of hegemony, most people were willing – if not eager – to embrace Confucian philosophy, which promised to put people in their place and keep them there: in short, it promised peace.

But on the flip side of the coin from peace is a highly inflexible, rigid, ironclad social order designed to maintain the status quo. When people are discouraged from challenging their elders, their superiors, or people in positions of authority, they are also discouraged from searching for, identifying, and redressing flaws in the system. Now, the Confucian ideals also dictate that rulers must be wise and benevolent – they must listen to their subjects and implement suggestions as they see fit. But in our political realm, self-interest, not benevolence, seems to be more prevalent in the offices of high-ranking politicians.

This imbalance may have occurred for a number of reasons. For instance, one bad apple may have spoiled the entire bunch. It only takes one politician seduced by the promises of unfair advantages in an election for thirty other candidates to take up his game, refusing to fall behind. But looking past the the psychological mechanisms that drive corruption, I want to look at how we can effectively catch, address, and reform such behavior – how we can implement a solution as systemic and comprehensive as the problem – how we can establish transparency and accountability. 

No corrupt politician will ever wish to promote transparency. By definition, shady dealings will thrive best in the shade. However, in such sensitive situations, Confucianism’s go-to solution is to facilitate a mutually-agreed upon silence. The imperial court officials have the authority to analyze and evaluate the information deemed appropriate for their eyes, but they rarely demanded that the emperor release his exorbitant spendings so that they could question his lavish lifestyle – not if they wanted their heads intact. Confucian culture discourages questioners, and especially the precious, curious souls who dare to question up. Transparency will not be gifted down; it must be extracted. In the context of the Choi Sun-sil scandal, such transparency was exemplified by JTBC, and their uncovering of incriminating information from Choi Sun-sil’s tablet PC. Imagine the change we could catalyze if we pursued such transparency at a micro-level: if we challenged our mayors, congressional representatives, and the chaebols at every single step – if we held them accountable for their choices in office. 

That being said, the young people of Korea have been dealt a difficult deck of cards. According to “South Korean Youth in Crisis: Implications for Political Leadership” published in the Georgetown Policy Forum, “job insecurity, a rigid class structure, endless competition, and the virtually ceaseless effort needed for daily survival have made South Korean youth apathetic toward politics and political solutions.” Almost one-third of people in their twenties say that they are not interested in any political news. According to the exit poll for the 2012 Presidential Election – President Park’s election – only 68.5 percent of people in their twenties voted. It was the lowest turnout rate among all age groups, and significantly lower than the average rate of 75.8 percent.

But the sun is on the horizon. Our track record may paint a grim picture, but we still hold great potential for change in our hands. According to the Brookings Institute, leading up to the latest mid-term elections, “university student bodies and various youth groups mobilized young voters to go the polls,” garnering a 13 percent increase in youth turnout from the last election. “Once labeled as a politically detached generation,” it said, “South Korea’s youth sent a loud and powerful message that they have had enough.”

We need to turn out of elections. Our voices, whether they be conservative or liberal, whether the corrupt politicians want to hear us or not, need to be heard – just as much as the elderly’s. Accountability means calling our congresspeople, writing letters, attending protests, publicly questioning policies, and voting responsibly. Accountability enforces transparency. And neither of them will survive if we decide to bend under a Confucian sociopolitical order.

We are a generation of compassionate, caring, and revolutionary individuals who have the biggest stakes in the future of Korean democracy – it’s time that our elected officials heard our cry for change. If we want to stop the culture of corruption from seeping down our government, we must punch up.


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