• Heesang Yoo

Korea's Anti-bribery Law and Media


It was about a month ago that I had a small talk with an industry veteran residing in Europe. One of the topics was the treatment of journalists in Korea. I believe he may have the impression that we still need to provide money or similar monetary contributions to journalists on certain occasions. This kind of practice was commonly executed by corporations and even government organizations years ago. They provided either cash or cash equivalents, nicknamed “transportation reimbursement.” This is no longer the case. Instead, a small gift is normally given to journalists after a PR or marcom event, that is, until recently.

In addition, it was pretty much standard to treat journalists to lunch and give them a small gift after a press event. This trend came to an abrupt stop, however, when an anti-bribery law was enacted about five years ago.


Anti-bribery Law (Kim Yeongran Law)

Korea’s anti-bribery law was enacted in late 2016 and is commonly called the “Kim Yeongran Law,” named after the former Supreme Court Justice who initiated the law. The law is primarily targeted at civil servants and those working in government and at government-related organizations. It prohibits the provision of bribes, both monetary and nonmonetary. The law defines what kinds of activities are regarded as bribes as well as how much cash is allowed to be gifted in several common cases. For example, there are limits of KRW 30,000, KRW 50,000 and KRW 100,000 for dining, gift giving and monetary contributions, respectively, with regard to a number of social activities, namely funerals and weddings. Exceeding the above-mentioned maximums subjects the offender to punishment and, worst of all, legal issues. However, there have been almost no reported cases of violations since the enactment of this law except for a couple of minor cases involving media and/or journalists in small Korean cities. Gift giving during Korean traditional holidays, such as New Year’s Day (both Lunar and Gregorian) and full moon festival period, are very common, and there has been an outcry from businesses who say that some of the regulations are impacting them greatly. These affected businesses suggest raising the gift ceiling from KRW 50,000 to KRW 100,000.


Why Journalists and Media Are Included

The anti-bribery law has also affected those in the healthcare, education and media industries, namely doctors, teachers and journalists. It seems odd that these professionals are impacted by a law primarily targeted to prosecute civil servants and government officials for bribery activities. There are a number of individuals in Korea that are highly regarded and respected—including the aforementioned doctors, teachers and journalists—and it had been customary to treat these professionals to heartfelt lunches or dinners and give them small gifts to showcase people’s sincere appreciation. However, the overall level and frequency of these gestures of appreciation have been getting more lavish and expensive. They have even reached a level in which they are regarded as bribes rather than just simple acts of intending to show appreciation. At the same time, some of these professionals expect and even demand this lavish treatment. It has reached the point of affecting the normal businesses activities of corporations as well as putting a heavy burden on parents and relevant industries, hence, sparking demands by the public to put proper restrictions on this.

It also looks bizarre that journalists are affected by these restrictions. It is customary to provide a meal, usually after a press event or meeting, on top of a not-so-small gift. Also, there is a Korean expression known as “FAM trip,” which describes when journalists covering respective companies or industries are invited to take overseas trips to visit well-known industry seminars or exhibitions or multinational companies’ headquarters. However, these FAM trips have started to be seen as special treatment, and there have been cases in which companies need to accept journalists in higher positions or irrelevant sections.


Aftermath

There was an almost instant halt of normal PR activities right before the enactment of the Kim Yeongran Law, which was clearly understood by civil servants and government officials but not really by journalists and media in general. There was a long period in which both journalists and media would “try to avoid getting even remotely close to” breaking the law. It is important to not to lose face in Korean society, and being caught or even suspected of violating the new law may damage one’s overall reputation. The law immensely affected the hospitality industry, and hotels in particular had a lot of trouble because their conference facilities were the de facto setting to conduct media activities. Hotels have adjusted their meeting and conference offerings to meet the new regulations, but that has not stopped corporations and journalists from fleeing to other less expensive options. Journalists and corporations now prefer a location that has more economical meeting facilities, and lavish set menus or full buffet offerings have been replaced with lunch boxes or just snacks. FAM trips, which were very prevalent, have been reduced almost to the point of nonexistence. Journalists and media have relaxed a bit with their response to the law, but the overall sentiment of “be careful to the point of not even being considered” continues with both corporations and journalists alike.


Understanding these unique aspects of the Korean media scene will help you when you are planning to conduct PR or media relations in Korea.


If you need help, Prism Communications (www.prismcomms.com) can guide you through the process with deep knowledge and insight backed by more than two decades of experience.

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