(86) Rampant Bribery Spawns Shoddy Construction

By Yang Sung-jin

It was the same old “tragic’” story. Fifty-five people, mostly high school students drinking in a bar, were killed in an Oct. 30 fire in the western port city of Inchon that gutted a four-story building in the city’s entertainment district.

The bar had no fire exits or sprinklers and windows facing the street were blocked by heavy screens. Police blamed the fire on collusion between public officials and businessmen.

It is nothing more than a “comedy” that police are pointing their fingers at others. As it turned out, the bar owner had bribed at least 11 local police officers to operate his lucrative bar illegally

The tragic comedy is largely due to lax safety control, coupled with deep-rooted corruption practices among public officials and police.

Shoddy and shameful construction practices were also a serious problem for the Choson rulers. On Feb. 11, 1789, when King Chongjo was heading for a royal mausoleum, a bridge crossing the Shinwon Stream suddenly collapsed.

“The bridge broke when the royal guards were in the middle of it,” officials reported to the king.

“Were people and horses hurt?”’ the king asked, startled.

“Fortunately, no one was hurt because the stream was not that wide,” Suh Yu-rin said.

King Chongjo made a detour and crossed the stream over a small bridge, a move deemed unfit for a royal procession. No wonder, then, that officials rushed to file an appeal to punish those responsible for the shoddy construction of the bridge.

But the king did not buy the opinion of the officials, citing the 1766 incident in which King Yongjo forgave those who built a poor-quality bridge out of generosity.

In January 1415, a similar construction fiasco involving corrupt public officials was reported. “Officials in charge of the construction failed to supervise the construction project. As a result, nine pillars collapsed and 50-odd pillars were fatally impaired only a couple of months after they were built,”’ Sahonbu (Office of the Inspector-General) said.

On July 17 of the same year, storms and downpours ravaged the nation. With scale of the damage beyond average, 28 houses and three gates at the royal palace collapsed, which irked King Taejong.

“The destruction of the houses at the palace is mainly due to irresponsible construction works. How can this happen?” the king chided officials.

Said Park Eun, a high-ranking official: “The houses should be rebuilt since the construction parts did not fit in with one another.”

Rebuilding royal houses, however, was not only wasteful but also a great burden on the populace. At the time, both professional carpenters and ordinary citizens were recruited to work for government construction projects for minimal wages.

“Last year, our citizens were forced to build those houses while the government spent a lot of money on the project. Now, such hard work and budget became useless and who is going to do the work all over again?” King Taejong said, with a sigh.

Regarding the shoddy construction, the king arrested three chief supervisors — Song Jin-saeng, Cho Pok-cho and Kim Kwan. Yet it was a mere gesture since King Taejong also knew of the necessity of rebuilding the houses as quickly as possible.

Only three days after the arrest, the king released the three officials and ordered them to set about repairing the damaged houses and rebuild the collapsed ones.

The three officials were simply lucky. In August of 1424, a defense castle in northeastern Hamkil-do caved in. Officials who had been involved with the construction project were ordered to go to the remote place to rebuild the severely damaged castle.

In June of 1430, officials took issue with the irresponsible construction work of Mohwaru (a royal guest house for Chinese diplomats).

“Mohwaru is the place to welcome foreign diplomats but it is now being repaired because of its shoddy construction. Considering the importance of the venue, construction workers and supervisors had to pay greater attention to every detail, yet Ahn Sun, Hong-ri and other officials neglected their duty,” Lee Sung-jik of Sahonbu filed an appeal to King Sejong.

Lee charged that the officials involved with the fraudulent construction apparently ignored their duty, warranting severe punishment.

On July 12, 1433, angle rafters of Kunchongjon at the Kyongbok Palace were partly damaged amid downpour.

In directing the repair work, King Sejong issued an interesting order, “Instead of blue tiles, use plain and cheap tiles.” At the time, rafters at palaces were made of expensive blue tiles but the king did not want to use the premium material, mindful of the extra cost.

“Our people tend to hurry in whatever work they do and that is why almost everything is incomplete and inaccurate,” the king said.

On Aug. 11, 1464, this irresponsible attitude invited a tragedy. Part of the construction site for a temple collapsed, leaving two military officers dead and five others severely injured.

King Sejo immediately ordered those who failed to supervise the construction project properly to be arrested and punished.

Of course, poor construction practice has much to do with the general attitude of some corrupt officials eager to receive kickbacks and yet are unwilling to serve the public cause.

Nowhere is the historical depth of bribery among public officials more illustrated than in the Choson Annals. There are a total of 2,962 articles which contain the word, “bribe.”

The frequent quotation of the ominous word in the Annals articles, in a way, can be viewed as a sign that the Choson rulers and politicians were mindful of the festering effects of bribery.

To curb the thriving bribery scandals despite repeated crackdowns, Sahonbu filed an appeal to the king in May, 1447. In a lengthy report, Sanhonbu argued that not only those who offered kickbacks but also bribe takers should be severely punished.

That may be a tall order for “some” police officers who unabashedly squeezed sweet kickbacks from the Inchon bar owner.