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No free lunch: South Korea's graft law bites

[SEOUL] The owner of Poom Seoul, an upmarket restaurant in South Korea's capital is seriously considering closing her business, as customers dwindle ahead of new anti-graft laws designed to curb paid-for favours.

The law, which comes into effect on Wednesday will make it illegal for government employees, private school teachers and journalists to accept meals worth 30,000 won (S$35.30) or more.

"The number of reservations have recently fallen sharply as customers are apparently worried they might be caught in breach of the law," Roh Young Hee told AFP.

"There are meals of different price ranges in the world, but with 30,000 won you cannot produce decent Korean dishes," she added.

The legislation, the latest effort to curb low level corruption endemic in South Korea, targets teachers bribed by parents to give better grades, journalists paid to give favourable publicity and officials bought off by businessmen to speed up bureaucratic processes.

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The law has prompted some restaurateurs to introduce graft-busting menus.

"Instead of expensive Korean beef, we are now using imported US beef for our new dinner set priced at 29,800 won," Restaurant Condu manager Han Yoon Joo said.

The ban also forbids teachers, officials and journalists accepting gifts worth 50,000 won or higher, and cash gifts above 100,000 won for weddings or funerals.

Offenders who accept gifts worth more than a million won will face a jail sentence of up to three years, or fines of up to 30 million won.

Department stores have started to prepare cheaper gift sets and rates to play on golf courses have plunged.

In the past, people charged with receiving bribes got away with a slap on the wrist or were acquitted as it was hard to prove that money or gifts changed hands in return for a favour instead of as a token of hospitality.

In 2010, a businessman revealed on a local investigative TV programme that he had regularly handed 57 former or incumbent state prosecutors cash gifts or treated them to lavish meals and sex services.

A year later, a state prosecutor was investigated over charges that she received cash gifts, designer bags and a luxury sedan from a lawyer.

Both cases, however, were dropped as there was no evidence that the transactions were made in return for favours or in connection with the recipients' jobs.

Ensuing public uproar inspired the new law, the "Improper Solicitation and Graft Act", an attempt to tighten loopholes in the country's existing anti-graft legislation.

NGOs have welcomed the law, expressing hope it will help enhance transparency.

"Many will think twice whenever they have the chance to wine and dine or accept gifts", said Lee Eun Mi, head of the Centre for Administrative Watch at the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy.

"Under this law, whistle blowers will be rewarded with cash of up to 200 million won, and this may serve as a strong restraint when you are tempted by corruption," she added.

However, the law has been greeted with wariness in some quarters.

"We will closely monitor whether the authorities will attempt to take advantage of the law by applying the law arbitrarily in a bid to tame the media and limit their normal reporting practice," the Journalists' Association of Korea said in a statement.

Some critics say the law's targeting of private sector workers - journalists and school teachers - is potentially unconstitutional and that the government rushed the law through as a sop to public opinion.

"Punishment can serve as a short-term measure, but for a long-term effect, all that matters is education" aimed at raising public awareness against corruption, said Kim Young Chul, president of the Korean Association for Anti-Corruption Policy Studies.


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