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If I Could Change The Law In These Here Parts

A relative newcomer to the Friday Five, Tanya the Happy Tester asks:

Due to a highly improbable circumstance, you have the power to create or destroy 5 of the laws where you live. This could be anything from changing a local ordinance to overturning case law to drafting new sections of your constitution. What do you change?

That’s a really interesting question, and I’m not sure I can really answer it in the way it’s intended. You see, most of the problems I have with South Korean law have to do with their enforcement, as opposed to the laws themselves, or with the social or corporate culture that surrounds illegal activities. So I’m mostly going to suggest a few laws which I’d really like to see enforced, though there’s one exception that comes to mind immediately.

But I know most people won’t be interested in this, so I’ll put it in the extended post, and if you’re curious you can read more…

A relative newcomer to the Friday Five, Tanya the Happy Tester asks:

Due to a highly improbable circumstance, you have the power to create or destroy 5 of the laws where you live. This could be anything from changing a local ordinance to overturning case law to drafting new sections of your constitution. What do you change?

That’s a really interesting question, and I’m not sure I can really answer it in the way it’s intended. You see, most of the problems I have with South Korean law have to do with their enforcement, as opposed to the laws themselves. So I’m mostly going to suggest a few laws which I’d really like to see enforced, though there’s one exception that comes to mind immediately.

Adultery Law

I’m not a fan of cheating spouses. I abhor them, in fact. I think they’re quite low. Yeah, yeah, Bridges of Madison County and all that. Look, I know humans are weak and all that. I know that marriage is hard. But I think people who, in full knowledge of their actions, cheat on their spouses, especially those who make a habit of it, are cheap, selfish, immature people. They deserve to have their faces rubbed in their stupidity, they deserve to get the short end of the stick in any divorce proceeding, and so on.

I don’t think, however, that they deserve to be imprisoned. You see, in South Korea, adultery is a criminal offense. If a person is caught cheating on his or her spouse, the spouse can file charges and the person can be imprisoned, as can the person they’re cheating with. I don’t know if one can plead ignorance of a partner’s marital status as a defense, but I do know that the possiblity of imprisonment isn’t a sort of idle threat that’s suggested but never carried out. It is carried out, in fact. One of the big news stories these days is about an ex-Miss Korea who was charged with adultery. (She has even been arrested and is being held now, according to the Choson Ilbo.) As you can see in the commentary following the first link above, the issue of the criminality in Korea is (a) a dated law that is (b) unfairly enforced. I don’t know if women are charged more often than men, but I can guess that the vast majority of adulterers are never faced with criminal charges because of the shame factor that scares their spouses away from having it enforced. And given the amount of adultery that does go on in Korea, and which everyone here knows has been going on for a long, long time, it’s really silly that some rare poor soul should be imprisoned to keep around a law that, after all, isn’t preventing adultery anyway.

To review: I am against adultery, and I am against adultery being a criminal offense in a modern legal system.

Moving Violations

Once, I said to Lime and the experience of cycling in Korea making me ever so much more bitter than before, “You know, whenever I see someone driving like an idiot, I just want to yell right in their face!”

Pointing out the futility of the urge, she retorted, “But you’d be yelling at most drivers…”

There are some good drivers in Korea. I know there are. I’ve even seen a couple. But there is also a huge number of people here who drive like mental patients. Members of this large and dangerous group of people treat traffic laws as suggestions, figure that mirrors are on their cars for aesthetic value, and feel that, if they really want to get somewhere fast, honking their horn all the way through, and perhaps raising their hand in vague quasi-apology is sufficient penance for driving right on through the red light.

I know, I know, we don’t have a few-generations-old driving culture here. But you know, the fact that everyone’s windows are tinted (shielding drivers from the sun, sure, but also shielding a driver from the humanity of all the other drivers they’re cutting off and nearly killing) doesn’t help. Still, the biggest problem, I think, is that enforcement is so damned weak. I’ve never seen a cop car chase down any of the people I’ve seen doing any of these stupid, stupid things. In fact, in all the time I’ve lived here, I’ve seen precisely one cop car pull one car over, for some minor offense. But people speeding at murderous, insane speeds through downtown areas, who should be chased down and jailed immediately for their idiotic recklessness, go unpursued. Hell, I’ve almost been killed myself a few times by Chinese-food delivery boys with nothing to live for, driving like madmen on their crappy little scooters.

Traffic law needs to be enforced, and viciously, if Korea is ever going to stop having what has, yes, once again been announced to be (if I’m reading this correctly) the worst pedestrian-accident death rate in the OECD.

Immigration Law: The Release Letter, The Contract, The Horror

First off, I should note that the horror is completely not mine. When I last changed jobs, I had no problem obtaining my letter of release. I simply informed my employer, with the aid of a co-worker who helped me through the social procedure of asking correctly, and I was given one with no problem. Well, there was a problem, in that a very nasty little man at the immigration office then grilled me for nearly an hour about it, but that had nothing to do with law, that was just a little nasty man. Still, I’ve never had a problem obtaining the letter of release that is required for foreign workers in Korea who want to change jobs before the end of their current contract.

However, there are plenty of horror stories from people who have had such trouble. One of the problems is that there are a large number of unethical people running the hakwons (private language schools, and of course schools for just about any other subject you can imagine). Sometimes it seems like every second person has a horror story about a hakwon where they were screwed in their first year in Korea. (Lucky me, I don’t…) Well, one of the things that prevents people from quitting in mid-contract when an employer stops paying, or moves you from semi-decent housing to garbage housing, is the Letter of Release.

Over at, there is an interesting exposition of this document, which many people who aren’t members cannot perhaps access. The most interesting and pertinent bit of the history is this:

Some years back it did not exist and Immigration simply decided each case on its facts.

Then they discovered that there were far too many teachers changing jobs thus their work skyrocketed – so they (without legal authority) devised the Letter of Release.

Korea is bound by certain Labor Conventions which include the right to ply your trade – thus the LoR is a breach of International Conventions Korea ratified.

In other words, this is an illegal document, and yet the lack of it has messed up the lives of plenty of foreign teachers in Korea. Not only that, but it’s even been used as a kind of blackmail device by countless hakwon owners.

The Letter of Release shouldn’t be required, or at least not as stringently as it currently is.

Family and Debt

I’m not even sure this is a legal convention in Korea, but I’ve heard from several friends that it is. Thus far, having no legal family bonds in the country, I have had no reason to look into whether or not it’s actually true, you see.

So I’m posting about this one hypothetically, in case what my friends have said or implied is actually true.

Now, let me begin by explaining my point of view, from my own culture. See, in Canada, if you have a sibling who’s an idiot and doesn’t pay a credit card debt, for example, then as long as you haven’t co-signed on the card, you are not legally responsible for the debt. After all, it’s not your fault your sibling is a moron. You didn’t ask for that, you never chose it.

But I have heard that in Korea, things are different. I’ve heard that if a sibling messed up with a credit card, the problem doesn’t just remain that person’s problem. The collectors can start in on the rest of the family, and, apparently, at least in one case I know, a sibling can be forced to pay for the debt. Whether that’s legal practice, or some old-fashioned coercion going on, I don’t know, but I do know that this kind of thing is horrible and can mess up a person’s life through no fault of his or her own. It shouldn’t happen.

Food Standards Inspection and Enforcement

When the news about the garbage dumplings hit the street, people were outraged. Pickled radish of low quality, which was supposed to have been discarded as trash, was “recycled” within the company and used as stuffing for dumplings. I remember I was pretty disgusted at the time, and I wasn’t the only one, to be sure. Korean culture is a very gustatory culture, it’s a culture that’s deeply interested in and passionate about food, so it’s unsurprising that a huge outcry ensued, and the obligatory chaebol-CEO suicide followed.

Yeah… people got angry, and then they cooled down, and then they kind of got over it. I don’t think it’s so hard to find people eating dumplings again, and of course, dumplings are now the last place I’d look for violations of Food Safety Standards. (More fool me, perhaps little has changed…)

I’ve heard that calls for greater enforcement of food safety standards have been made, but I have no idea whether they have been followed through in a substantiative way or not. I hope they have. Yet I worry when I see things like this article, which claims the “garbage dumpling” situation had been going on for five full years; and that the bastard was washing the radishes in eColi infested sewage to hide the color and saltiness of the pickled radishes. He was washing radishes in shit and then selling them as food. Can you imagine the kind of person who does this? Can you imagine, even worse, the kind of food industry in which this can happen for five years uninterrupted?

Because my father used to work in the field of Quality Assurance in the food industry, I have a little idea at least about the way that food manufacturing plants are supposed to be inspected. I also happen to know that the actual inspections take a lot of time and effort, more than can actually be spent by the government’s officers. So it’s really quite hard to catch violators. A month’s strenuous cleanup before the inspection and you can get away with a filthy, bug-ridden mess the rest of the year.

If everything is internal, of course. If you’re shipping to other companies, who have qualified inspectors, then you don’t stand a chance in hell. You will get your samples sent back with an unhappy note about bugs found in the packets. You will get a bad reputation. You will lose business. Your company will die. Now, that’s why the rule of law can kill a company that doesn’t follow standards.

That’s why moves need to be made to split up the massive companies like this one, that held 70% of the dumpling fillings marhet share in Korea. Koreans are used to such native megacorporations, which they call chaebols. The dismantling of chaebols into smaller separate corporations competing with one another—and regulating one another—would probably be painful at first, but would also, I think, be good for both the Korean economy and the quality of life for consumers… which is to say, for human beings here.

Economic and corporate reforms aren’t everything, though. A change of staff and of procedures in whichever wing of the government is supposed to be taking care of food safety is probably in order; in fact, if the company producing 70% of Korea’s dumpling stuffing was washing ingredients in sewage for five years without being caught, I think that it goes without saying that not just one, but several people just weren’t doing their jobs well enough.

A shakeup in procedure would be handy, too. Surprise inspections, strict warnings, and corporate death penalties would also probably go a long way to deterring such ridiculous stupidity. What’s a Corporate Death Penalty? Simple: it’s not a death penalty for a person, but for a company. After a certain number of violations of a certain degree of severity, the corporation is dismantled and no longer allowed to do business in the field or to exist in any form whatsoever. I think any company that made money by feeding people food washed in sewage for a period of five years deserves a punishment as vicious as that, but then again, I am sure I’ve eat such dumplings myself, and I do take that personally.

What saddens me is that at least in the English media in Korea, I’ve not seen much about food standards reform or new regulations, or even a damned crackdown. The topic seems to have gone off the radar, or at least I haven’t noticed anything on it lately. People shouldn’t necessarily still be complaining about the garbage dumplings anymore (or Ono, for that matter), but they should still be persistently writing letters and mounting protests and doing whatever else they can to get the government to really get its act together on the issue of Food Safety.


It looks like I’ve reached the end of my tirade. If you’d like to see what kind of legal changes other Friday Fivers would like to see in their corners of the world, check the links in my sidebar.

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