Korea_18th_Presidential_Inaugural_05 (Photo credit: KOREA.NET – Official page of the Republic of Korea)

The criticism the West has levelled at Asian business practices for many years is their seemingly inscrutable ethical code of conduct. While how this plays out is different country to country, in each situation the Western observer labels it the same way: corruption.

The Korea Herald reported today:

The National Assembly grilled President Park Geun-hye’s nominees to head three government ministries Wednesday, centering on their ethical standards and past misdeeds.

Has the West observed this correctly? Or reframed, maybe the question is better asked: are we in the West without influence from avarice? Are we able to level this criticism without the fear of a barrage of stones crashing through our own glass house?

A good friend of mine, Bronwen Dalton, has written extensively looking at corruption from a cultural context in Korea. It has been a few years since I read her work, and so I am going to dig it out again and refresh my memory, but not in time for inclusion in this blog. I’ll come back to her work some other time, because this is not the last time the issue of corruption and cultural bias will be considered in a conversation that seeks to prepare Australia for the Asian century.

From an ethical perspective, it has been fascinating watching the process in Korea for the formation of the new Government after the December 2012 election for President. Park Geun-hye was inaugurated earlier this week, and her government is still incomplete because of a power-play in the Assembly resulting in a deadlock preventing decisions to approve nominated positions. Leaving aside the ethics of this behaviour for one minute, I want to examine some issues of ethics that have emerged. Not to suggest that this is purely a Korean phenomenon which it is not. One look at the Australian Government House of Representatives, as well as the pressures experienced in the US passing health care reform will show that party politics is a game played the world over.

This issue is that people is high public office have baggage, and that baggage is a source of ammunition for the Opposition to stall or reject their nomination. It does create a situation where the country is poorly governed for a short time, although there are secretaries of all of the ministries who are competent to take care of business until the politics is played out. There are many examples, but let’s zoom in on Yoo Jin-ryong, the nominee to head the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

During his confirmation hearing, Yoo Jin-ryong apologized to the public after he conceded that his wife had falsely registered her residential address in 1988, a widely used practice to purchase property or have children attend prominent schools. The nominee said it was a simple mistake.

His wife allegedly earned 28 million won (rough AU$30,000) in profit from the sale of an apartment which she registered as a residency but did not dwell in it.

The nominee said it was a simple mistake and denied allegations that the falsification was intended for real estate speculation.

“A simple mistake”? Maybe he is telling the truth, but it sounds like a dodgy explanation to me. Where does corruption begin and end? Is Yoo Jin-ryong covering up a culture of corruption, or is this really a case of cultural bias to ethical standards?

Before ending, I thought I would quickly mention the corruption allegations against Eddie Obeid, the former NSW Government Minister. The allegations against him are of a more serious nature than tax avoidance conducted by his wife. Let’s take a broader view of the faults in all of our cultures when we raise the issue of corruption in Asia. We are not going to stop it, but we can be vigilant and resolved to act with higher ethical behaviour as far as it depends on us.


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