Kim Young-ran Act: Impacting Corruption but Also Culture

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By Matthew Fennell, Contributing Writer

January 2017 – At the end of September, 160 elderly citizens enjoyed their annual sightseeing tour as part of a Seoul district’s community program. Nothing untoward here one may think, yet the following day, the mayor of this district was under police investigation, accused of breaking the new anti-graft law that is now in force in South Korea. The Anti-Corruption and Bribery Prohibition Act, more commonly known as the Kim Young-ran Act after the former head of the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, was enacted in South Korea on Sep. 28 2016, bringing about sweeping changes to the Korean culture of gift giving and taking acquaintances out for food, drink, and other forms of entertainment.

The Kim Young-ran act directly affects about 4 million public servants, teachers, and journalists, along with their spouses; yet, as these are people who play an integral role in the daily lives of South Koreans, at schools, local government offices and hospitals, it is safe to say that the Act will impact the lives of all 50 million people who live in the country. Put simply, the Act boils down to the “3-5-10” rule; only 30,000 won can be spent on treating someone to dinner, 50,000 won on a gift, and 100,000 won on a cash gift at weddings or funerals. The exception to this rule are teachers and police officers who are not allowed to accept even small presents; the apple on the teacher’s desk has become a thing of the past.

People are taking this new law seriously; it is impacting society daily, none more so than in the dining culture of the country. Going Dutch is very rare in restaurants in Korea where tradition holds that the host or the oldest person at a table picks up the tab. Yet, having one of the 4 million public servants or their spouse on your table, even if childhood friend, would put you in a situation where you and they may be breaking the law. Restaurants around government offices and buildings, usually jam packed with lunchtime trade, are quiet with many public servants opting to eat at in-house cafeterias. Other restaurants are having to take certain items off the menu, replacing them with set menus that fall below the 30,000 won threshold. 

Across the country’s schools, signs warn parents not to bring gifts for teachers, a common practice in Korea’s education-focused culture. The flower industry saw sales plummet by 22% in October as people were wary of sending expensive blooms, a common practice of congratulations or condolence in South Korea; funeral directors have reported fewer wreaths being delivered to grieving families. Supermarket stores have had to address the tradition of selling pricey gift boxes in the lead up to national holidays, instead downsizing to reduce the cost to below 50,000 won. 

An unlikely winner in the early enactment of the law are convenience stores who have seen a spike in demand for alcohol and snacks as people opt to drink at home rather than in bars and restaurants. It is certainly going to take time to adjust to this new law and for now, public servants and their acquaintances are being careful as getting caught breaking the law is a real possibility; members of the public, the amateur paparazzi, are on hand to record evidence of crimes in the hope of receiving bounty rewards from the government. The Kim Young-ran Act has greatly expanded their hunting ground.

*Matthew Fennell is Asia Society Korea Center’s Contributing Writer and Assistant Professor at Hanyang University in Seoul.