By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Oct. 27 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's anti-graft law aimed at curbing corruption has been changing the local dining scene and gift culture in the first month of its implementation as those subject to the new regulations are breaking with tradition and reconsidering their way of doing business.
The Improper Solicitation and Graft Act, which took effect on Sept. 28, bans public servants, educators and journalists from receiving free meals valued over 30,000 won (US$26.50), gifts worth more than 50,000 won or congratulatory or condolence money of more than 100,000 won, if there is a potential conflict of interest.
The so-called Kim Young-ran Law, named after the former Supreme Court justice, was considered a landmark framework in a country where nepotism and collusion between government officials and businesses has often been blamed for hampering fair competition and undermining the credibility of the government.
Despite the widespread public support, the new rule is taking its tolls on local restaurateurs and retailers selling gift items.
Among the hardest-hit by the new law were high-end restaurants near government complexes and public offices, flower shops and golf courses as many were reluctant to dine in lavish places and give presents in fear of getting caught as exemplary cases.
"We used to have many government officials and business owners, but the number of main patrons has sharply dropped over the past month, especially at dinner time," Jang Min-seop of a Korean beef restaurant near Seoul City Hall said.
During lunch time, Jang said most customers order "bibimbap," a mixed rice dish served in a hot stone pot, priced at 12,000 won. Meat dishes, which easily go over 30,000-40,000 won per 150 gram, are rarely ordered. Instead, some try "beef shabu shabu," a hot pot meal where very thin slices of beef are cooked in a hot broth. The 29,000 won lunch special was launched last month for those who want a meal below the meal price cap.
"As both the number of customers and their spending have shrunken since the law took effect, we are trying to step up promotion among Chinese and Japanese travelers to make up for the profit shortfall," he said.
Naturally, the way people pay their bills has also changed.
While the eldest person or host of a gathering usually picks up the bill at the table, more people are standing in line at the checkout counter to go Dutch.
"I've seen some young people separate their bills, but it was not common among meetings of company colleagues or elderly people," said the owner of a seafood restaurant near the government complex in downtown Seoul. "These days, asking to split credit card receipts is nothing new anymore. It takes more time, but we are getting used to it."
The changing dining scene has cut demands for chauffeur services in busy business districts, such as Yeouido, which houses many financial firms and the National Assembly.
"Yeouido used to have a thriving drinking culture related to political and lobbying activities, but it is bearing the brunt of the new law. The number of call services has been cut by half, raising concerns over business prospects," Kim Jong-yong, the leader of the nationwide chauffeur service association said.
The floral industry is also feeling the pinch of the new business environment during the high season when many have weddings or companies start announcing their year-end promotions.
In South Korea, it has been customary to send a basket of flowers or a pot of orchids to congratulate people on promotions. Sending huge flower easels to weddings or funerals has been common as well.
According to the data by the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corp., flower transactions came to 1.96 million bunches in the first 24 days of this month, down a whopping 22 percent from the same period a year earlier.
To some, the stricter rules on dining and drinking provides a good excuse to bail from unwanted gatherings, which has in turn raised the number of people who drink at home.
"Evening appointments and late-night drinks were considered an extension of my daytime work, but I'm taking a break for now as many officials and journalists are taking the regulations seriously in the first month," a public relations official working at a major conglomerate's headquarters said. "During baseball season, I had beer and watched games at home. I actually enjoyed it."
As a result, local discount chains and convenience stores have seen strong demands for alcoholic beverages and food considered appetizers for drinks.
CU, a major convenience store chain operated by BGF Retail, said sales of beer and soju rose about 20 percent from Sept. 28 to Oct. 21, while those of hangover cure drinks were cut by more than half over the same period.
A civil servant working at the Seoul Government Complex says he used to return home between 11 p.m. and midnight after rounds of post-work dinners and drinking sessions in the past, but these days he reunites with his family before 9 p.m.
"An additional two to three hours at home in the evening means much more difference for my family," said the official.
Corporate officials in charge of contact with public offices also welcome their leisurely evening hours at home but complain that they have greater difficulty maintaining networks with officials.
While government officials and businesses are seeking ways to adapt to the new rule, they say more discussion is needed to draw a clearer line between bribery and good-hearted gifts to avoid confusion in daily life.
The Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, which oversees the new policy, said it has received nearly 5,000 questions related to the interpretation of the comprehensive law as of Tuesday via e-mail, homepage and phone.
Amid confusion, a local court on Oct. 18 received the nation's first case in which a civilian sent a box of rice cake to a police officer in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, to show gratitude for his kind service.
The policeman immediately returned the present worth 45,000 won to the civilian and reported to his office, which then requested the district court to rule on the case. If the court finds the civilian guilty of the violating the anti-graft law in a trial, the person has to pay a fine.
In response to growing complaints, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn urged the civil rights commission and other legal bodies to come up with clear guidelines on the law.
"As we are at the early stage, and as around 4 million people are affected by the law, it is natural that some confusion exists," Hwang said during a government meeting on Oct. 14.
"There are controversies about whether a certain action violates the law. Although the civil rights commission is making efforts, there is insufficient knowledge related to what is permissible and what is not."
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