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Italy's anti-corruption advice for Korea

By Lee Chang-sup

From 1992 to 1995, Italy was the focus of international media for its unprecedented effort to drive out corrupt politicians, businessmen and government officials. The drive, dubbed the Clean Hands initiative, resulted in the arrest of a large number of high-profile politicians and businessmen implicated in dirty money deals.

More than a decade later, Korea is doing the same thing, which is shaking the basic foundation of the way politicians mobilize funds and businessmen do business.

To find the similarities and differences of Korea and Italy's respective Clean Hands drives, The Korea Times interviewed Domenico Pacitti, who is considered to be one of the world's leading experts on Italian corruption.

Here is the summary of our interview with Pacitti.

Korea Times: What are the similarities between Italy and Korea in rooting out corruption?

Domenico Pacitti: The striking similarities are the large scale and uncompromising sweep of both anti-corruption drives, their bulldozer-like action and the dramatic consequences in terms of prominent arrests and imprisonments. In both cases corruption centers on relations between high industry and politics, notably the illegal funding of political parties.

Korea Times: What are the differences?

Pacitti: First, the Korean anti-corruption drive followed democratic elections in 1987 and is at present fully active. So there is some degree of continuity and consistency. Operation Clean Hands, on the other hand, arose as a complete anomaly in Italian history and was predictably short-lived. The Italian operation began in 1992 and was virtually extinguished in 1995, though there were later unsuccessful attempts to revive it.

Secondly, the Korean drive arose as a government initiative and, to my knowledge, no prosecutors were ever singled out as heroes or villains. In Italy, the operation was entirely due to the initiative of a pool of magistrates in Milan and was strongly opposed by politicians. One prosecutor, Antonio Di Pietro, was first acclaimed as a national hero and later branded a villain.

Thirdly, as far as I can see, Korean words and intentions have been matched by actions in the sense that the sentences actually get carried out in full accordance with the law. In Italy, the combination of a cunning Machiavellian mentality on the part of politicians and the prevalence of forgiveness over justice grotesquely transformed the entire undertaking. It turned into the customary Italian circus-like comedy with guilty politicians being freed, reinstated and actually re-entering parliament.

Finally, systematically distorted media coverage in Italy shifted initial public support for the judiciary to the politicians. This was orchestrated by the few men responsible for most of the Italian media, including current premier Silvio Berlusconi. Korean media coverage so far, at least in the case of the Korea Times, appears to be unbiased, transparent and correct.

Korea Times: Do you think Italy has become clean of corruption a decade after the widespread anti-corruption drive?

Pacitti: Absolutely not. On the contrary, corruption is at least as bad as before and probably even much worse. But it is now subtler and better concealed.

Italian politicians have had the advantage of studying and understanding how they were taken by surprise and how to avoid a repetition.

Italian politicians have been working hard on introducing new legislation to decriminalize previously criminal acts and plug inconvenient loopholes. Italians are past masters and proven world leaders not only in corruption but also in the twin arts of circumventing laws and legislating in order to circumvent them in the future. The next step in ensuring political impunity in corruption is Berlusconi's plan for a radical reform of the judiciary.

Korea Times: What lessons could Koreans learn from the Italian Clean Hands initiative?

Pacitti: Confucius taught that in order to understand the correct way to behave in a given situation, there is no better lesson than to observe someone behave in the wrong way and then to learn from those mistakes. In this context, the important lessons are all negative and most of the crucial Italian errors are contained in my reply to your second question.

The fact that the Korean drive began as a major political initiative has set your country on the right path and it has already avoided many of the Italian pitfalls. So Korea must avoid Italian-style U-turns, resist all counter pressures and carry the work through to its final conclusion.

On the other hand, Korea has no shortage of lessons to teach Italy and other countries, including the fact that democratization does not have to be synonymous with Americanization. That your anti-corruption operation is in full swing today notwithstanding two Korean presidents were themselves convicted on corruption charges, is a sign of great strength, not weakness.

It is instructive to compare Italy in this regard. When former Italian president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro found himself accused of having stolen the equivalent of 52,000 euros a month for four years, he simply refused to reply and called Clean Hands Italy's most shameful and ignoble scandal, adding that it was even worse than the car bombings which had been taking place at the time and which had been attributed to the Mafia.

Korea has surprised the world and overtaken many of its competitors with its economic success. I think it has all the credentials in terms of dynamic drive and a healthy, dynamic and forward-looking mentality as opposed to the diseased, static and backward-looking Italian mentality to lead the way also in combating corruption.

Korea Times: What advice would you give Korean prosecutors, politicians and voters?

Pacitti: Public prosecutors should continue to treat everyone equally before the law and to impose stiff penalties, also for their deterrent value. They should show no political preferences, should not enter politics themselves and should beware of being manipulated. No individual prosecutor should seek the limelight or try to become a hero. This means keeping away from the media.

Politicians should never forget that it is their privilege and duty to serve the best interests of their country and of the voters who elected them. They should understand, above all, that their example automatically sets the limits to corrupt or honest behavior among the population. They should try to introduce positive measures to encourage honesty in addition to negative ones to discourage corruption. Eradicating corruption should not be allowed to become the prerogative of any one political party but should be an ongoing common, cross-party effort.

Voters should use their votes to elect honest politicians, get rid of the corrupt ones and ensure that no single individual controls too much political, economic and media power. They should remain vigilant and never be afraid to speak out and report corruption, and they should learn to honor no man above the truth. Voters should organize themselves to this end and set up watchdog commissions with appropriate use of the Internet.

Korea Times: What are the advantages and disadvantages of such an operation? What are the dangers? What would be required if it is to succeed?

Pacitti: It all depends on your perspective. According to Berlusconi, for example, there are no advantages. At least, that is what he told the Bulgarian government two years ago on a visit to Sofia when he said, "Do not follow the example of our action against corruption", meaning forget Clean Hands and concerted anti-corruption drives. Well, Berlusconi has had 13 criminal cases against him, including involvement in Mafia killings, and has managed to escape all of them and has even had new legislation passed in order to facilitate this.

On the other hand, the potential advantages of such an operation to a country like Korea are inestimably high, provided it succeeds. The chief danger is that failure would lower credibility. Enduring success will ultimately depend on Korean resolution and good will and on the concerted efforts of the Korean people.

Korea Times: Do you think Korea's image overseas has been tainted just because of the Korean Clean Hands initiative?

Pacitti: Only in the short term and in the eyes of Korea's competitors and enemies. Corruption goes on everywhere but many countries choose to hide it or to reveal only the tip of the iceberg like Enron in the U.S. or Parmalat in Italy. In the latter case, if it were not for the strength of the euro, Italy's economic credibility would deservedly have collapsed like a pack of cards.

For Koreans to have had the courage to identify corruption, proclaim it and combat it is a great honor and reflects well on Koreans and Korean credibility.

Korea Times: Do you think the anti-corruption probe will have a negative impact on the economy?

Pacitti: Only in the short term. But Korea must look beyond this. A conclusive Korean triumph over large-scale corruption would not only greatly increase the political and economic strength, efficiency and credibility of your country, while providing a lasting lesson to Koreans that crime does not pay, but it would also stand as an excellent example to other countries, including Italy, of how to succeed in what has so far proved an impossible task in the West eradicating corruption.

Domenico Pacitti is a British writer and academic of third generation Italian origin who has taught at the University of Pisa since 1985. He is editor of the human rights journal JUST Response, which is based in London & Rome.

Lee Chang-sup is Business Editor of The Korea Times.

Note: This interview was published in The Korea Times on February 11 2004.