Koreans’ lack of faith in strangers, foreigners holds country back
25-year-old man surnamed Choi beat and raped his girlfriend in
Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, in July last year after she
demanded they break up. When he faced police investigation, Choi’s
mother, 50, hurt his son with a stone to make it look as though his
girlfriend had hit him and provoked the attack. She then made him sue
Both Choi and his mother surnamed Chun were
recently convicted of making false accusations, with Choi also found
guilty of raping and injuring his girlfriend. The court said Chun’s act
was more malicious than her son’s.
Also in Cheongju, a
77-year-old man has been imprisoned four times for making 118 claims
based on fabricated statements since 2000.
In April 2010, a woman
in her 50s in Busan was sentenced to a year and four months in jail and
a fine of 3 million won ($2,850) for a dozen false accusations
including some against a prosecutor and a judge.
were just some of a growing number of Koreans put on trial on charges
of calumny. According to figures from the Supreme Court, the number
increased from 1,533 in 2006 to 1,663 in 2007, 2,090 in 2008 and 2,154
In tandem with the rise in false accusations, the number
of people tried for committing perjury in court also climbed from 1,210
in 2006 to 1,638 in 2007, 1,858 in 2008 and 1,983 in 2009.
note that Korea may be the country with the highest rate of people
punished for making false accusations or giving false testimonies. In
2007, Koreans indicted for perjury or calumny totaled 1,544 and 2,171,
respectively, compared to only nine and 10 in Japan. Taking into account
Japan’s population is about 2.5 times Korea’s, experts said the figures
indicate that Koreans commit perjury and make false accusations about
420 times and 540 times the rate of the Japanese.
Law enforcement officials here also complain they are having difficulties with witnesses giving false testimonies.
witnesses appear to believe they have the right to lie while making
statements to investigators,” said a prosecutor at a prosecution office
Under the current laws, witnesses giving false
testimonies to the prosecution or police go unpunished, while those
proved to have fabricated facts in filing suits or to have committed
perjury in court are subject to up to 10 years in prison or 15 million
won in fines and up to five years in jail or 10 million won in fines,
respectively. The Cabinet recently approved a revision bill to criminal
laws, which would introduce obstruction of justice to enable the
punishment of lying witnesses and increase the maximum prison term for
perjury to seven years.Distrust of strangers
say the pervasion of false accusations, perjury and distorted
testimonies reflects the embarrassing truth the country faces ― many
Koreans don’t feel guilty about lying, keeping societal trust at a low
In his 1995 work “Trust: The Social Virtues and the
Creation of Prosperity,” U.S. scholar Francis Fukuyama placed Korea in
the group of low-trust societies along with China, France and Italy,
which are family-oriented and have relatively low levels of trust among
strangers. He argues low-trust societies need to negotiate and often
litigate rule and regulations while high-trust societies like those in
Germany and Japan are able to develop innovative organizations and hold
down the cost of doing business. According to him, the level of trust
based upon shared norms is the most pervasive cultural characteristic
influencing a nation’s prosperity and global competitiveness.
further reflection of the relevance of his theory, Korea has been
inundated with fraud, accusations and complaints, with Koreans’ trust in
strangers and foreigners remaining at lower levels, compared to other
According to statistics from the Justice
Ministry, a total of 205,140 cases of fraud took place in 2008, costing
victims about 2.8 trillion won.
Misappropriations and breaches of
duty numbered 26,750 and 5,135, bringing about losses of 806 billion
won and 617 billion won, respectively, in the same year.
number of cases submitted to the prosecution increased from 564,532 in
2007 to 594,058 in 2008 and 618,470 in 2009, according to the Supreme
Prosecutors’ Office. More than 60 percent of them have not led to
indictments by prosecutors, suggesting Koreans tend to rush to accuse
someone without trying to find a compromise.
2005 World Values Survey showed that a mere 13.4 percent of Koreans
trusted a stranger, compared to an average 33.9 percent in 12 surveyed
member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development. Just three in every 10 Koreans replied they trusted
foreigners, far below the OECD average of 54.3 percent. But an
overwhelming 99.3 percent of Koreans expressed confidence in family
members, compared to 86.9 percent in other OECD countries. About 84
percent of Koreans responded they trusted acquaintances while 76.4
percent in the OECD states said so.
The high sense of closeness
to family members, friends and other acquaintances is often behind
perjury cases. A survey by the prosecution found that more than half of
those indicted on perjury charges had acted because of acquaintance and
26.5 percent were motivated by economic benefit.
requesting anonymity, said he has often got the impression of trials
being degraded into a contest of liars. Last year, a motel owner, who
had been fined for arranging prostitution, was arrested for inciting his
friends to give false testimonies in favor of him. His friends also
stood trial on perjury charges. A man being tried for violent acts and
his wife were recently punished for committing perjury. After the wife
was indicted for making a false statement that her husband had not been
violent, her husband had perjury added to his counts by insisting that
his wife had not lied about his case.Historical roots
note the lack of a sense of justice among Koreans may be due to their
tendency to put personal relations ahead of laws, which is rooted in
traditional culture and has been augmented by the turbulent modern
history of the nation. They say such attachment to personal ties has
hampered the strict application of law and public norms in Korean
society. In the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), which was based on Confucian
principles, those who accused their parents, superiors and spouses were
punished for tainting “fine customs.”
“Koreans tend to lie to
maintain personal relationships, which shows the characteristics of
Korean society oriented to connections and harmony,” said Mun Yong-rin,
professor of education at Seoul National University, in a paper.
report by the Korea Development Institute indicated Koreans’ tendency
of trusting acquaintances and distrusting strangers has become stronger
through Japan’s colonial rule, the Korean War and the rapid economic
growth that has driven them to unlimited competition.
Koreans have developed their own survival wisdom based on their
historical experience that personal ties and private organizations have
been more helpful and protective for them than public authorities.
low-level trust in Korean society has also been reflected in Koreans’
inclination to easily accept groundless rumors as true and doubt
statements or explanations by government officials and experts. For an
example, the Seoul government had difficulty getting the public to
believe the outcome of the inquiry into the cause of a naval ship
sinking in the West Sea in March last year. Even after inviting
international experts to join the investigative team, some Koreans
persistently raised suspicions over the conclusion that a North Korean
torpedo attack sank the vessel.
In a survey of 2,012 adults,
conducted by the Presidential Committee on Social Cohesion in 2010, a
meager 3 percent of respondents said they trusted the legislature, with
just 19.6 percent and 16.8 percent having confidence in the
administration and the judiciary. A 2006 survey by the KDI put public
trust in the legislature, administration and judiciary at 3.0, 3.3 and
4.3, respectively, on a scale of zero to 10 with 10 marking complete
confidence. The scores were below or similar to 4.0 for strangers. Other
organizations also marked tepid scores ― 5.4 for educational
institutions and civic groups, 4.9 for the media and the military, and
4.7 for large companies.
A 2007 survey by the Pew Research
Center, a nonprofit U.S. think tank, found that fewer than one in 10
Koreans were satisfied with their government, below 11 percent for
Nigeria and 22 percent for Uganda and similar to 6 percent for Lebanon
and 5 percent for Palestinians. Questioned on whether they believed
national leaders had a good influence on state affairs, just 24 percent
of Koreans replied positively ― the third from the bottom in the list of
32 surveyed countries and about half the levels in the U.S. and Japan.
societal trust remaining low, Korea is gripped by intensifying social
conflict. In a social conflict index list of 27 OECD member countries,
published in a 2010 research by the Samsung Economic Research Institute,
Korea ranked fourth ― behind Turkey, Poland and Slovakia.Building trust
blame the high level of distrust and conflict in Korean society for
moral hazards and a lack of social responsibility among those with power
and wealth. It has become a familiar scene for those designated for
high-ranking posts to withdraw from their positions after coming under
fire for a string of past irregularities or illegal acts revealed at
parliamentary hearings. But many experts say the problem of low trust
should not be attributed only to those in the higher echelons, noting
that fraud, false accusations, perjury and other crimes gnawing at
social trust have permeated all corners of society.
If Korea is
to join the group of advanced nations, they say, the country should
strengthen efforts to enhance the level of societal trust. They indicate
Koreans should discard their distrust for strangers and foreigners and
open wider their minds in an era when the number of expatriates living
in their country has exceeded the 1 million mark and is expected to
“Until now, economic growth has enabled Korea
to come to the threshold of entering the group of advanced countries,”
said Shin Kwang-yeong, sociology professor at Chung-Ang University.
“But from now on, Koreans should take steps toward building a trustful society to become a truly advanced nation.”
Eun-young, professor of mass communications at Sogang University, said
Koreans have been passionate in their achievements and such passion has
led to the permeation of the perception that in the process, other
things including moral integrity can be sacrificed to some degree. She
noted, however, times have changed and Koreans should recognize the
increasing importance of paying heed to morality and the interests of
the whole community rather than being preoccupied with their goals.
By Kim Kyung-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)