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[Editorial] Public sector corruption

A recent survey on the trends of corruption in the Korean public sector has found that 2010 was the worst year since 2000 in terms of businessmen’s perception of corruption among high-ranking government officials.

According to the Korea Institute of Public Administration, 86.5 percent of the respondents said corruption was serious among senior public officials last year, the highest level since it started the annual survey in 2000. Each year, the institute has polled 1,000 businessmen who run small and large companies in the nation’s 15 major cities.

According to KIPA, the previous highs were 85.3 percent in 2001, the fourth year of the Kim Dae-jung government, and 85 percent in 2007, the final year of the Roh Moo-hyun government. What these figures suggest is that corruption in the public sector tends to surge in the final years of a government in Korea.

Therefore, it is not far-fetched to expect that corruption among public officials will increase further during the remaining term of the incumbent government. This year, we have already seen an unending spate of corruption cases involving public officials. We take it as an indication that discipline in officialdom has loosened to a dangerous level. Not a day seems to pass these days without a new corruption case grabbing headlines.

A recent case involved 17 officials of the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs. In March, these officials attended a seminar on Jeju Island organized by the ministry for some 600 officials from local governments and construction companies. After the seminar, they received lavish entertainment from the companies. They were reportedly caught with their pants down at a hostess bar by an inspection team from the Prime Minister’s Office.

On Wednesday, a senior official of the same ministry in charge of real estate affairs was arrested by the prosecution for taking 32 million won in bribes from a real estate investment firm.

These cases are probably just the tip of the iceberg. There must be numerous corruption cases of a similar kind that remain under wraps. So much so that President Lee Myung-bak said on Tuesday, “We have now reached a point where we can no longer tolerate corruption. We cannot go on like this.”

Following Lee’s lament, the government has launched an intensive crackdown on corrupt public officials. Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik told auditors from 38 central government agencies to conduct thorough inspections into ethical lapses and corrupt practices by public officials.

To put real teeth into the crackdown, the government needs to strengthen legal sanctions against corrupt officials. One reason corruption remains widespread in the public sector is that those found guilty of corruption have not received punishments corresponding to their wrongdoing. This time, no leniency should be granted to officials who have succumbed to the temptation of easy money.
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