Local council leaders’ refusal to abide by a code of conduct enacted by a state anticorruption agency is yet another case showing that Korean society still faces an intransigent obstacle to ridding itself of one of its chronic problems.
Heads of the 16 metropolitan and provincial councils across the country recently adopted a resolution against the conduct rules and delivered it to the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission and the Ministry of Public Administration and Security.
The resolution made it clear they would not move to pass an ordinance needed to implement the rules drawn up by the ACRC in 2010.
Under the code of conduct, local councilors are required to shun a certain category of undesirable activities, which include sitting on a committee related to the private business of their relatives, requesting favorable consideration for a job applicant, intervening in a dispute over interests and using the budget for other than the pre-established purposes.
The conduct code formally took effect in February last year but its actual application has been postponed as local council heads drag their feet on passing a separate ordinance to follow through with it.
Their rebellious stance is far detached from the public’s belief that the country should fight corruption to develop further. It should be taken seriously as a case showing that Korea still remains largely insensitive to the urgent need to eradicate corruption.
Korea placed 43rd in the list of 183 countries ranked by the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International.
Among the 34 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the country ranked 27th. It scored 5.4 ― far below the OECD average of 6.9 ― on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 10 (very clean).
A local research institute recently estimated that Korea’s economy would grow by an extra 0.65 percentage point if its CPI score rose to the OECD average.
Council leaders have claimed the imposition of the conduct rules would violate the autonomy of local assemblies, which already have their own code of ethics.
This argument appears far from persuasive to the general public or officials at the state anticorruption watchdog.
Most people see their resistance to strengthening rules against misconduct as nothing to do with the autonomy of local councils.
Moreover, it was rampant misbehavior among local councilors that had induced the anticorruption agency to put forward the strict code of conduct.
Of the 3,626 local councilors elected in 2006 to the previous four-year term, 323 were punished for illegal acts including election law violations and bribery, according to figures from the Ministry of Public Administration and Security.
Since the terms of the current local assemblies began last July, a dozen members have been stripped of their seats after being convicted of bribery and other wrongdoings.
Against this embarrassing backdrop, local council heads should have taken the lead in introducing tougher in-house rules, rather than standing in the way of the new code of conduct.
Provisions in the current ethics code regulating local councils are criticized for being too abstract to ensure effective punishment.
Local councilors seem particularly resistant to being prevented from sitting on a committee that could be related to the private business of their relatives.
This stance would only deepen public distrust as many local councilors on construction-related panels have been punished for or come under suspicion of peddling their influence to give favors to companies run by their relatives or other acquaintances.
Local council leaders are urged to withdraw their block to the stricter code of conduct and thus help boost the nation’s anticorruption campaign, which has stalled in recent years, with a number of figures around President Lee Myung-bak jailed on corruption charges.