I had lunch with Srirak Plipat, Asia-Pacific director of Transparency International (TI), in Seoul on Nov. 21. He came to Korea as part of an Asian visit before the anticorruption watchdog released its Corruption Perception Index (CPI) on Dec. 3.
We talked about efforts aimed at fighting corruption in the Asia-Pacific region, and our conversation naturally led to the situation in South Korea.
I asked him, "Will there be any change in Korea's rank in this year's CPI list, compared with the previous year?" Immediately, he said he could not reveal Korea's place as the report was embargoed.
But Plipat did not hesitate to say that South Korea had moved backward as far as its fight against corruption was concerned. Instantly, I realized the country's ranking on the index would drop.
He pointed out that the nation should have an independent anti-corruption watchdog to make strenuous efforts to usher in a more transparent and cleaner society.
He expressed regret that the previous conservative Lee Myung-bak government merged the Korea Independent Commission against Corruption with the Ombudsman of Korea and the Administrative Appeals Commission in 2008.
The integrated entity is the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission (ACRC). The integration was part of efforts to slim down the bloated structure of government agencies and maximize their efficiency.
Plipat, however, called for the separation of the anticorruption function from the ACRC so the country can have a neutral and independent anticorruption watchdog.
He believes the merger of the three agencies was certainly a setback to Korea's drive against corruption. The merger could be seen as a lack of government will to transform the country into a cleaner society.
In the short run, the independent agency might raise the financial cost for its operation and thus damage the efficiency of the administration. But, from a long-term perspective, the separate entity is sure to do more good than harm because it can produce more successful results in the anticorruption campaign.
I think the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, which forced Koreans to bite the bullet due to radial austerity measures, was a turning point in how to tackle the corruption issue. The embedded cause of the turmoil was corrupt ties among bankers, businessmen, regulators, bureaucrats and politicians.
Then, the liberal government under the leadership of late president Kim Dae-jung set up the independent anticorruption watchdog to declare war on corruption. Thanks to this effort, the nation's Corruption Perception Index ranking had steadily risen for the first decade of the 21st century.
Korea's position on the CPI list rose from 50 in 2003 to 39 in 2009. However, it dipped to 46 last year. And this year it stood at 43. It appeared the country had moved up three notches. But that does not necessarily mean the nation has improved its anticorruption efforts.
A TI Korea staff member said the country's rank represented no change compared to last year because two states, Saint Lucia and Brunei, which ranked 22nd and 38th respectively in 2013, were exclude from this year's list. And Korea tied with Malta at 43.
I felt a sense of relief as Korea's position virtually remained unchanged, as I had expected it to slide to the bottom of the 40s. There is no good reason for the country to go up on the list of 175 states.
Actually, South Korea suffered a setback in its anticorruption efforts this year. More than anything else, the April 16 sinking of the ferry Sewol sent a wake-up call to the nation and the people. The disaster was apparently the culmination of greed, mammonism and corruption.
Everybody recognized that it is high time to bring radical change to the nation to prevent such a calamity from recurring and ensure the safety of people and their property. But no one still can feel that the country is making real progress in tackling the root cause of the human tragedy.
Plipat suggested that the nation should revive the Korean Pact for Anti-Corruption and Transparency (K-PACT), a nonbinding social agreement on anticorruption initiated in 2005 under then liberal president Roh Moo-hyun's rule.
Plipat sees the K-PACT as a good example of the anticorruption movement. It can act as a catalyst to change Korean society.
The ongoing economic slump and financial difficulties have tended to force policymakers to put the corruption issue on the backburner. But we should not drag our feet on eliminating corruption.
I hope policymakers will accept Plipat's call to establish an independent anticorruption watchdog and restore the K-PACT.