Magazine

Seoul's Web of Anti-Corruption


Call it unfinished business. A decade ago, Goh Kun was forced out as mayor of Seoul because he had the temerity to resist pressure from a powerful developer who wanted a lucrative contract to build apartment buildings. Roh Tae Woo, then Korea's President, didn't appreciate the appointed mayor's efforts to curb such influence-peddling. But in 1998, Goh regained the Seoul mayorship in a popular election. And this time, he's determined to win his war on corruption. His weapon: the Net.

Nearly half of South Korea's population logs onto the Internet. So Goh, 63, is setting up a system in which all city contract bids and permits for everything from karaoke bars to new buildings will be handled online. Any citizen can view the details. Contractors never have to meet city officials in person, and no longer pay "express fees"--i.e., bribes--to expedite an application. Says Goh: "Sunshine is an effective disinfectant. And transparency is a cure for underhanded dealings."

NO RED TAPE. Goh's campaign seems to be having a dramatic impact. From 1995 to 1999, 83 city officials were indicted for corruption. But prosecutors have not filed a single case since Goh's Online Procedure Enhancement (OPEN) system was launched last year. Analysts say that's because bureaucrats have less leeway in allocating resources and come in less contact with favor-seekers. In a survey of 11,250 citizens who have sought permits, only 6.7% said they tried to bribe civil servants last year, vs. 38% in 1998.

The paperless system also has cut red tape. Architect Kim Hong Sik, who applies for dozens of building permits annually, reckons processing time is 30% shorter. "One of my employees used to spend days finding out the status of our applications," Kim says. "Now all you need is to click on your PC."

Corruption won't end quickly, of course. While the site gets more than 2,000 daily visits, many citizens still believe they can jump queues by bribing officials. "We have people leaving envelopes containing money at the desks of civil servants," says Kim Chan Gon, director-general of Seoul's Administrative Reform Bureau. More than 90 such cases have been reported since February, 2000, when the city set up a center where officials can report bribe offers. Seoul's anti-graft image is spreading. The International Monetary Fund and U.N. hail its system as a model, and Korea's central government wants all provinces to adopt OPEN.

For Goh, keeping his integrity was a matter of political survival. His father was a leading opposition politician during the days of dictator Park Chung Hee in the 1960s. The younger Goh was then a civil servant, and his bosses refused to promote him beyond trainee for nearly four years. In the career that followed, Goh hewed to the straight and narrow. Any hint of graft, he says, would have made his family vulnerable. Goh honed a reputation for honesty in the 1980s as Transportation Minister and Interior Minister, and as Prime Minister in 1997-98.

Civilian scrutiny helps make the mayor's online campaign effective. Last July, Goh introduced an Integrity Pact in which businesspeople and civil servants agree to accept severe penalties if they are caught offering or accepting bribes. Goh let watchdog groups appoint five ombudsmen to monitor how well promises are kept.

"Korea has a long way to go before ending corruption," says Park Won Soon of the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. "But Mayor Goh has certainly taken an important step toward it." Koreans across the country hope the crusade can succeed. By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul


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