Gift-Giving and Bribery Culture in Korea
By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist
Koreans are some of the most generously-giving people in the world. In particular, they enjoy giving gifts and helping each other when in trouble, especially financially. The extent of Korea's underground economy, whereby Koreans give, help, and loan each other with gifts and money, is quite extensive for a nation aspiring and often claiming to be an advanced nation. Their gift-giving custom is wonderful as a cultural trait, but also troublesome if it involves government officials, as the line between gift and bribery tends to blur.
Recently, the nominee for the nation's top prosecutor's job withdrew his nomination when it was disclosed that he had "borrowed" millions from his "friend" to buy a condo. Was it bribery? Just a gift from a friend? Let's observe some specific phenomena that illustrate the issue.
Koreans marvel, with considerable envy, at the way Americans calmly divide up their lunch tabs. Americans either pay for their individual orders or divide up the total equally among those present, unless the payer is designated beforehand. This is called "going Dutch," which solves a lot of headaches as to who should pay for whose lunch and why. The Dutch system requires a considerable amount of business rationality and egalitarian logic.
Waitresses nowadays routinely ask if the tab should be on the same check or separate checks. Whether this is a civilized form of assigning costs fairly and decently is a different question. What is unquestionable in this method is that it is efficient and clean-cut, which is why some Koreans envy it.
In Korea, because of its general cultural ambiguity in all things, settling up who pays how much, especially among friends and relatives, often evolves into a major struggle. Most Koreans, being so infinitely conscious of their duty to others, practically fight for the honor of paying the whole bill for everybody. Sometimes, foreigners are astounded to witness a physical shoving match, as members push one another aside to rush to the counter to pay the bill. We actually witnessed a person being knocked down on the floor so that the other person could rush to the counter to pay the lunch bill. Much of this shoving is for show, of course. But the astounded foreigners think Koreans waste a lot of time arguing over why one deserves to pay the bill over another, who makes a similar argument.
This is a perfectly honorable and humane custom, no doubt. But, while the American way of divvying up the bill is efficient and rational, each paying for his share of the cost, the Korean way is so fraught with "honor," "justice," "duty," "face," and the like, and it also creates enough ambiguity so the money exchanged loses its sharp economic definition. A free meal here, a golf-trip there, or a foreign vacation somewhere else, can escalate and the question of quid pro quo might eventually arise.
Similar to this, Korean-style free lunch is another ambiguity in its gift-giving culture, the ambiguity of yes or no. I am speaking of the Korean custom whereby a person must refuse an offer at least four times. Let's imagine a scene where a person is offered a gift. The person is under the obligation of Korean custom, which requires that he decline the offer at least four times. The person who offers is also under the obligation to offer it at least four times. So, according to this wasteful system of offering and declining, "Please, take it" and "Oh, No, I can't," each transaction takes a total of eight exchanges of offering and declining.
That is a lot of wasted time and energy for one interaction, of course. But this custom also perpetuates the culture of ambiguity in Korean minds and habits, as if four repeats on both sides define the gift-giving and gift-taking as a justifiable act. Taking someone's offering without going through the four-time ritual is considered positively rude. They say it is "a typical American-style behavior" as an American normally accepts a gift with a simple "thank you," and withdraws his offer of a gift if the receiving Korean declines once, without going through the "four-peat" routine.
The gift-giving culture of Korea, so wonderful and so ambiguous, also extends to one of its most important functions ― borrowing money from each other. Instead of borrowing money from the banks, many Koreans borrow money from their relatives, friends, seniors and juniors, private money-lenders, and so on, bypassing the public banking institutions. The risks and dangers are great, and the interest rate in private lending is much higher than in the public bank loans. But the advantages in private loans are irresistible: They bypass all the hassles of paperwork and government snooping for taxation. Also, this practice conforms to the general comfort of Korean culture.
This private lending and borrowing operates mostly on an honor system, without collateral, very powerful and strict in its own way. Because this system is non-official and extra-legal, its enforcement must have the same or stronger controlling effect as force of law. Otherwise, this sort of system would be unworkable, ending in chaos. It is somewhat like the Mafia-run honor system: Unofficial and extra-legal sanctions are deemed more powerful and absolute than the official legal punishments. As in the Mafia operations, those who borrow privately in Korea are bound by a sanctioning system equally powerful and absolute. Because the lender lends mostly on words of honor, violation of this honor system is the same as the borrower's own death sentence.
The borrower who fails to repay private loans faces the prospect of losing everything in his society ― his honor, prestige, credibility, face, status, and, worse still, being branded a dishonored scoundrel unworthy of anyone's company. In other words, the failed borrower becomes a persona non grata in his community, unworthy of even the lowest common courtesy or tolerance. The word spreads faster and with greater finality than any formal credit failure. The violator either goes underground, in cognito, away from all social contact, or leaves the country in disgrace. This is somewhat akin to the Japanese businessmen, and some Koreans, committing shame-suicide when their businesses fail.
This cultural tendency of gift-giving among family members, friends, classmates, relatives, and anyone else who shares a special bond of belonging, such a wonderfully human gesture, is also the cause of Korea's chronic issue: bribery. Because cash and material objects are so generously given and routinely expected, too often the boundaries of gift-giving and bribery-giving become unclear. When so much money circulates as gifts, and so many expensive articles are given and taken among people, and all that in the name of gift-giving among members of a tight-knit group, trouble naturally brews.
Unlike the laws in the United States concerning bribery, giving or accepting itself does not automatically constitute bribery. The prosecution has to prove that there was "reciprocity" by the gift-taker who was obviously in a position to do something favorable to the gift-giver. Since money and articles freely change hands as gifts, unsecured loans, or congratulatory donations, often in the name of friendship and mutual aid, the prosecution finds it difficult to prove reciprocity when both sides deny it and there is no material proof. Kim Min-ho, a law professor in Seoul, is highly incensed by this peculiar loophole in Korean anti-bribery law. "There is no giveaway money in this world," Kim says. "Nobody gives money to an official without expecting something in return."
Is corruption, then, part of Korea's embedded cultural practice? Maybe, maybe not. Unless we are prepared to condemn Korea wholesale as a corruption- and bribery-ridden society, this peculiar dilemma must be clearly recognized. A government official accepts a "gift" from his high school classmate upon his 60th birthday. Is an act of bribery taking place? Or, is it simply Korea doing its thing, all over the nation and at all times?
Isn't Korea definitely a strange and wonderful nation?