Korean Law Demystified!

When Does Receiving Money from a Parent Become Criminal for a Teacher (in Korea)?

[Example Situation]


Mr. Shin (age 48) is a 4th grade teacher at a private elementary school in Seoul. The school is located in a relatively affluent neighborhood. In the last six months, Mr. Shin has secretly received around 4.6 mil won (USD 3,800) from the parents of two students in his class. (Some of it he received in cash, some in gift certificates.) In return, the parents requested the following: 1) That Mr. Shin not write down their children negatively in the school records; 2) That their children not be discriminated against at award ceremonies; and 3) That their children not be scolded for failing to do homework properly. All is well until the parents start to realize that Mr. Shin is not really living up to his side of the bargain. So they report him to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. Soon, Mr. Shin is indicted under Article 357(1) of the Criminal Act (형법), and trial begins. How is a Korean court likely to decide?

I. The Ruling

The example is similar to a case recently reported here in Korea.

The Seoul Central District Court found Mr. Shin not guilty. But the prosecution has decided to appeal this decision. (In Korea, not guilty decisions can also be appealed.)

Side Note 1: The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education is asking the school to dismiss Mr. Shin, but he has only been suspended for 3 months.

Side Note 2: Bribing is also illegal and a crime, but I’m not sure the parents were indicted. (Well, they would have been found not guilty.)

II. Reasoning

The parents’ requests did not amount to “unlawful solicitation” under Article 357(1) because the requests did not violate “social norms.” In other words, the requests were ones that an average (Korean) parent could (acceptably) make. The court interpreted the requests more in the vein of generally asking a teacher to “look after one’s kid well.”

DID YOU KNOW? In Korea, such (quasi) bribe/tip given to teachers is called chonji. For fun, I looked it up on Naver. Look at definition #3.


It says: “Money given to show one’s heartfelt gratitude.” “Normally given to teachers or reporters.” I’m sure chonji did not start out as out-and-out bribes. But now, chonji has become something of a dirty word, I think.

III. The Double Standard for Public School Teachers

There has been much criticism regarding the “not guilty” decision. Aside from the fact that it’s (morally) reprehensible for teachers to receive money, many point to the double standard for public school teachers.

Had Mr. Shin been a public school teacher, he most likely would have been found guilty under Article 129(1) of the Criminal Act. In Korea, public school teachers are held to a much stricter standard with regard to bribes. That’s because Article 129(1) applies instead of Article 357(1). (Note 1: When the amount is 30 mil won or higher, an even stricter law applies. Note 2: Starting from September 2016, if a public servant or his/her spouse receives – for no apparent reason – an amount of 1 mil won or higher, that public servant will face criminal punishment.)

If you read Article 129(1), you will quickly notice there is no “unlawful solicitation” requirement. That makes all the difference. In 2014, the Seoul Western District Court found a public school teacher guilty of receiving 1.6 mil won (under similar circumstances to Mr. Shin).

Final Comments: I cannot say Mr. Shin’s acquittal won’t be overturned by the appellate court. When the prosecution appeals a “not guilty” decision, there is at least some belief that the case can be overturned. I was able to attend both public and private schools here in Korea, and (for me) there didn’t seem to be much difference. I was spanked in both.

Thanks for reading!

IMPORTANT UPDATE: The acquittal has been overturned by the Seoul High Court. The teacher’s been found guilty and ordered to pay a criminal fine of 4 mil won. We’ll just have to wait and see what the Supreme Court says.

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