Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been scouring the Korean newspapers and talking to everyone I know here about the Kim Young Ran Act, the new anti-corruption law that came into effect at the end of last month. It’s big news and fascinating because people predict that it will have a huge impact on Korean society.
WHAT IS THIS LAW?
So the law aims to put a stop to the use of gift-giving to curry favour with anyone working in public office, the media, and education (and university hospitals) (it includes their spouses too) That means, for example, that a lot of the wining and dining at high-end restaurants will have to stop, parents won’t be able to give any kind of gift to a teacher, and if your friend is a journalist you may have to reconsider how much money you give them when they get married.
Strict monetary limits have been put in place on how much can be spent on ‘gifts’ and if you are caught accepting money over that limit you could be fined up to 5 times the amount of money you accepted, or sent to prison. In some cases just doing ‘a favour’ with no money exchanged could be enough to break the law.
Obviously it’s great to try to curb bribery. So generally speaking people are welcoming this rule. But the biggest complaint is that the law is so vague in parts that not even lawyers can understand it. Many businesspeople are scratching their heads worried about putting a foot wrong as the ranparazzi (more about them later) are waiting to catch any law-breakers …
But it’s not just the business world that is nervous. Private relationships are technically not affected, so you should be able to give any gift to a friend. But if you are ‘caught’ doing this then you may have to prove in an investigation that you really are just friends and not business associates. And nobody wants to have to do that. So for now, everyone is playing it safe and avoiding entertaining and gift-giving in general. Even when they go to a special occasion like a wedding.
THE 3-5-10 RULE
Accepting large one-off monetary gifts is illegal. But it’s the 3-5-10 rule which is really causing headaches. This rule means that only 30,000 won can be spent on treating someone to dinner, 50,000 won on a gift, and 100,000 won on a monetary gift on an occasion such as a wedding or funeral.
There’s so much to say about all of this so in this post I’ll just look at the first part of this rule which deals with the 30,000 won limit on wining and dining.
30,000 WON DINNERS
BUSINESS & BBQ BEEF
Business and BBQ Beef Restaurants have become inseparable, so there are lots of high-end Korean restaurants in business areas where everything is paid for with a corporate credit card. Previously there was no legal upper limit on how much a business associate could spend when eating out with, say, a bureaucrat. But now the limit is 30,000 won! And that’s not very much – If Mr Kim and I go out for dinner at the weekend to a mid range sikdang, it costs on average around 50,000 won for the two of us. And that’s only if we drink cheapo soju – not wine or anything remotely fancy.
I’ve been told a million times that ‘Wining and dining is necessary to build relationships’. But since I’m married to a Korean businessman, I find this need/obsession to eat out with business associates every night of the week VERY ANNOYING INDEED.
Finding her husband snoring on the floor in his underpants at 3am in the morning reeking of soju and bbq meat is something that no wife should be subjected to.
To me, that’s more like single student life, not middle-aged man life. (watch the excellent TvN drama Misaeng, An Incomplete Life, for more on the misery of a salaryman’s life in Korea)
Unfortunately, it’s still legal to go out eating and drinking with coworkers and business associates who don’t work in public companies. ( But when I am in charge of law making, I will declare eating out with business associates more than twice a week, ILLEGAL. And drinking with coworkers on a MONDAY night, ILLEGAL. Let’s not start the week off with a hangover. My law will work alongside the anti-corruption law. I will call this the ‘anti-annoying your spouse’ law )
THE RANPARAZZI 란파라치 and PAPARAZZI HAGWON
Anyway, getting back to the actual law, with the 30,000 won limit on wining and dining in place, face-to-face meetings are being cancelled because NOBODY wants to be the ‘shibom case’ – the first ones to be caught and have their face splashed all over the front page of the news.
And one reason for this nervousness is the ‘RANPARAZZI’.
Ranparazzi (the ‘ran’ of kim young ran + paparazzi) is the new word to describe the members of the public who try to catch anyone who breaks the Kim Young Ran law! A juicy shot of some dodgy wheeling and dealing taken at an expensive restaurant with a hidden camera can bring in a nice reward. (Am I the only one reminded here of Orwell’s book 1984?) Read more about the ranparazzi here
Because rewards are offered to informers who hand law breakers over to the authorities, there are now ‘paparazzi hagwons,’ schools where people can go and study about photography and, I don’t know, paparazzi stuff.
With limits placed on companies for eating out, restaurants have had to adjust their prices with some offering a ‘Kim Young Ran set’ dinner created with a convenient price tag that remains within the new law!
But because of the ranparrazzi, it’s not enough to simply stay within the law.
Looking suspicious could get you in trouble. Say, a ranparazzi takes a photograph on a hidden camera of a businessman paying for dinner with a government official. If the meal costs under 30,000 won he is not actually breaking the law. But if the picture is handed in to the authorities, an investigation has to be carried out which is a headache for everyone involved.
And so many companies have decided that they really need to play it safe and so they are encouraging their employees to go Dutch when they eat out.
If everyone pays for themselves then there can no misunderstandings.
That seems simple enough, but going Dutch is not part of Korean culture – one person, the ‘inviter’ (is that a word?) or perhaps the most senior member of the group tends to pay for everyone. Maybe younger people will be able to adapt more easily to going Dutch, but most people I have spoken to feel uncomfortable with this idea.
It’s not simply about the money. I guess the ‘every man for himself’ approach goes against group culture. Not to mention ‘jeong‘ – how can you show gratitude or kindness or any kind of emotion to another over a meal when they are expected to scramble in their wallets to pay for themselves at the end of it?
Changing eating culture like this is clearly seen as trampling on the values of society. In this article in The Korea Times the writer compares the situation to:
‘a heart transplant on a massive scale ― taking out the Korean heart and putting the Dutch one in its place’.
Blimey, that sounds very serious indeed. On the day after the law came into effect, the front page of the Chung Ang Ilbo newspaper had a photo of a bunch of hands handing over bank notes at a restaurant till with the caption – ‘Busan government workers go Dutch to pay for their 6,000 won meals’. See the actual photograph here. The picture of a group of people going Dutch to pay for their meal makes front page headlines? Yes, that’s how big this deal is.
So on the day the law came into effect sikdangs around the business districts of Seoul were much quieter than usual. Coworkers decided that it was simply easier to go home than risk being caught on a hidden camera or having to leap into the uncomfortable terrain of everyone paying for themselves. So for a while at least, restaurants are bracing themselves for difficult times ahead.
It’s going to take time to adjust to this new law. Everyone is waiting for the first case to be prosecuted to see how the courts deal with this law. So for now, everyone is being careful. And so far no one has been caught, but it’s early days. Watch this space.