By Yang Sung-jin
The brewing controversy over the bribery scandal involving a jailed tycoon’s wife who allegedly offered expensive clothes to wives of some cabinet members is now the talk of the town.
No doubt, the high-profile incident is generating a lot of gossip as well as headlines, and marks the grandiose debut of the wives of a chaebol owner and high-ranking officials as newsmakers, something unprecedented in the modern history of Korea.
At the moment, the ladies involved in the scandal narrate conflicting stories to prosecutors, making it difficult to judge who is telling the truth. Regardless of the outcome, however, the unfolding drama is far from boring to observe.
Be it a top designer’s pricey clothes or cash, bribe scandals always involve personal greed and hypocrisy.
On Dec. 9, 1438, Shin In-son, a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Military Affairs, filed an interesting letter of resignation to King Sejong. In a lengthy document, Shin argued he could not hold office since his second son, Kye-cho, had been rejected twice for promotions.
“As far as I know, Kye-cho and his wife’s family have not done anything wrong, but he has failed to get promoted twice. I think there must be a reason,” Shin wrote.
In an eloquent and grandiose style, Shin attributed the delayed promotion of his son to his arrogance and inability. Shin stressed that he could not work for the court together with those who had shamed him, alluding to the involvement of Sahonbu (Office of Inspector-General).
King Sejong tried to placate the disgruntled official, saying Sahonbu might have made a mistake.
But the truth was that Shin’s gesture was a top-of-the-line example of hypocrisy and whim.
According to the article which detailed the incident, Sahonbu was fully aware of the fact that Shin had received bribes on countless occasions when he was a local governor.
“On his birthday, official Lee Sun-mong offered 50 bags of rice as a bribe while his wife and concubines covertly delivered rolls of silk and candles to Shin. When Shin was named as Kyongsang-do governor, he also received rice and silk clothes from Lee,” the writers of the Annals said.
They added Shin was enraged by Sahonbu’s boycotting of his son’s promotion deliberation and lied to make Sahonbu angry.
In a bribe-taking competition, few Choson public officials would outscore Shim Chon.
According to an article dated Oct. 5, 1566, Shim was charged with bribe-taking and extreme corruption.
“Shim Chon’s personality was greedy and crafty. He was jealous and ruthless in attacking others. He was elevated to a powerful post on the back of his relatives, and committed countless deceptions and frauds,” the article said.
His open excuse for amassing wealth through questionable means was: “I have 10 children and if I did not collect enough wealth, who would support their living in the future?”
His careful profit-taking surpassed greedy merchants and he often killed people in a bid to confiscate their property. “The cases of bribe-taking and theft of the nation’s property were too many to number,” the Annals writers said.
For instance, Shim coveted a patch of land. But as the landowner refused to sell it to him, Shim made a false accusation and put him and his family members in prison.
Even though the landowner’s family went bankrupt due to the imprisonment and a lawsuit that followed, Shim did not release the innocent victim until he had extorted bribes from them.
Shim’s insatiable appetite also tended towards extravagance which included a female shaman’s colorful robe, amongst other things.
Expensive, Colorful Shaman’s Robe
In 1649, Taxation Minister Won Tu-pyo filed an appeal that touched on the rampant bribe-taking among government officials: “Whenever there is an empty seat, all sorts of favors rush upon the person who oversees the appointment of a new person. Since there are too many requests, what the personnel official has to do is to sort them out.”
Won pointed out that such practice had permeated the lowest level of public officials, and crippled the government administration.
Interestingly, Won revealed that wives of “powerful” figures had also joined the bandwagon of bribe-taking.
“Bribe-givers are also crowding the front gates of those who manipulate the government positions according to the amount of bribes. Although their wives and concubines are wielding power at whim and seeking profits to satisfy their greed, the officials have no qualms,” Won claimed.
During the reign of King Sonjo, when the nation was invaded by Japan, official Lee Si-on took on the issue of the widespread influence-peddling and bribes-for-favors deals.
Lee argued that a wide range of public affairs ranging from lawsuits to promotions were manipulated by bribes and personal connections, rather than impartial judgments.
What was worse, the appetite for expensive clothes did not disappear even during wartime: “At a time when officials are required to focus on revenge against the Japanese invaders, they are indulging in silk clothes,” Lee said.
Lee also criticized the rising cases of bribe-taking via the wives of high- ranking court officials: “In recent months, the solidarity of the court has fallen apart and the populace have became frustrated with the mushrooming rumors about housewives involved in the bribe-taking.”
Regardless of sex and age, bribe-taking deserves criticism and punishment. Nevertheless, those “powerful” ladies charged with peddling influence through their husbands may argue that they have every right to buy expensive clothes — whether the bill is paid by themselves or others.
Indeed. they do have the right to flaunt their expensive clothes. But it is worth remembering the many ordinary housewives who cannot afford even moderately-priced clothes due to the pay cuts suffered by their husbands during the economic slump.