Lessons from South Korea

Suzanne Snively
TINZ Chair

Suzanne Snively ONZM
Chair, Transparency International New Zealand

South Korea has a new President and a renewed focus on reducing corruption.

On 7 December 2018, the Korean Institute of Criminology, and the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission (ACRC) hosted the Korean Institute of Criminology (KIC) International Forum on “Anti-Corruption Reforms for a Transparent Society: Experiences and Lessons”. There are lessons here too for New Zealand.

South Korea: Corruption Prevention through Public Administration

Officials at the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission (ACRC) and the Ministry of Justice, Republic of Korea (MOJ) co-organised and supported the event. It included experts, high level officials, and scholars from Sweden, New Zealand, the USA, and Hong Kong, bringing global perspectives and expertise in anti-corruption. 

The presentations reinforced the findings that only a very small proportion of the world’s population is corrupt and the best antidote is building trust and transparency.

The Korean Institute of Criminology (KIC) is Korea’s sole national research institute mandated to undertake comprehensive and systematic research on root causes of and solutions to crimes. For twenty-nine years since its inception, the institute has successfully fulfilled its mission of contributing to the formulation of national criminal policies and preventing crimes.

Even so, South Korea’s ranking on the Corruption Perceptions index has failed to improve.


Thomas Lehmann, Ambassador of Denmark to Korea, spoke about Denmark’s high CPI ranking, reminding attendees that Denmark is the second least corrupt country measured by Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index. He reasoned that this is the case because:

  • The dialectic of trust (interpersonal/institutions)
    • Trust reinforces stability and social cohesion
    • Low corruption levels generate trust.
  • Zero tolerance paradigm since the era of absolute monarchy
  • The Scandinavian welfare model
    • The Scandinavian countries all rank in the top 6 of the least corrupt countries globally
    • Countries’ features include generous and universal welfare services, a profound social security system and decent public sector salaries.
  • Checks and balances:
    • The ombudsman of Denmark is an independent entity to investigate complaints about the public administration
    • The Public Accounts Committee is appointed by the Parliament to carry out the audit of the Danish public accounts
    • The State Prosecutor for Serious Economic and International Crime is a unit of the Danish Prosecution Service whose main duties are investigating and prosecuting cases concerning serious economic crime
    • The press. According to the Danish Public Administration everybody – including the media – may demand access to documents submitted to or made by an administrative authority as part of administrative procedures
    • Danish anti-corruption efforts are led by a ‘coalition of concerned’ – politicians and senior government officials, the private sector, and by citizens, communities, and civil society organisations


Dr Erik Wennerström is Director General and head of the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention. This is a government agency for judicial statisticians and analysts. He listed three key reasons that Scandinavian countries continued to score well on the TI-CPI.

“First off is the importance of merit – common practice back then was to recruit the sons of high nobility to various offices in public administration. In a matter of recruitment, Oxenstierna noted an expression of interest from a highly qualified commoner for a particular office and had him appointed instead of a group of less qualified, but noble sons”.

“Secondly, the prohibition of bias or conflict of interest – officials who have a direct or indirect personal interest in the outcome of a particular decision may not take part in the preparation of the decision, nor in the actual decision-making. Should bias be discovered after the fact, the decision may be annulled and the official sanctioned. In modern Swedish administration, an official does not have to say more than “may I be excused from this decision”, and then leave the room, something that is regarded as perfectly normal”.

“The third principle that we can thank Oxenstierna for is impartiality and objectivity. When a matter of public authority is to be decided, the legal basis for the decision being taken will normally spell out the interests that need to be tried against each other (e.g. the interest of the state or the collective vs the interest of an individual or a group of individuals). The principle prohibits the introduction of additional interests – such as what is beneficial for the current government, personal interests of the decision-maker in question, societal antipathy against particular groups of individuals, etc. – into the decision-making”.

Wennerström also noted three key steps to set the tone at the top:

  • Collaborate with other organisations
  • Follow up the preventive measures
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise!

Hong Kong

The former Deputy Commissioner of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), Daniel Ming-Chak Li, provided a history of how Hong Kong addressed corruption over the years. He listed the following as making reasons why Hong Kong has maintained low levels of corruption since, despite the large immigration from main land China.

Checks and Balances:

  • Separate power of prosecution
  • Judicial supervision
  • External advisory committees
  • Legislature
  • Media
  • Internal monitoring


  • Corruption breeds corruption – it is not going to disappear.
  • Integrity building is a long-term project – there is no quick solution.
  • Strong political commitment and vast public support are essential in order that the system works.
  • Anti-corruption efforts must be consistent and seen to be consistent in order to maintain a sustainable deterrent effect.
  • Political leadership must realise that it would not have the moral authority to take action against errant citizens if it did not lead by example.
  • Firm integrity leadership is important – one that serves the public interest, the national interest, and the international interest as stipulated under the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.

South Korea: It’s Time to Strengthen Business Integrity Systems

South Korea has experienced strong economic growth over the past 30 years, accelerated by investment from the United States and other western democracies. This means that as well as working within government to strengthen integrity systems, it has the opportunity to work with its businesses to strengthen theirs.

South Korea’s 2018 TI-CPI ranking is 57, compared to 51 in 2017. This is a fall in ranking as great as that for the United States. Given its rapid economic growth, South Korea is well placed to turn its direction around.

This was the theme of Transparency International New Zealand’s presentation to the conference: Business Integrity is the Best Anti-Corruption Measure Suzanne Snively 6 Dec 2018

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