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South Korea: It’s a nice day for a shady wedding

SEOUL, South Korea — Weddings here are not just huge American-style parties. They’re lavish, anxiety-inducing celebrations. They’re even sometimes used for nefarious purposes, such as influence peddling.  

Families take the events very seriously. Their honor is at stake in a society where social stature is paramount.

Forget the American ideal of intimate affairs in bucolic settings. Families here are eager to show off their wealth and personal relationships, judged by the number of guests and the unbridled opulence of the event. Hundreds of co-workers, friends and distant relatives arrive even if they’ve never met the bride and groom. Otherwise, the hosts could lose face.

For some young couples, the demands are so grueling they lead to a pile-up of debt and fighting later in life.

Throw in the luxurious pre-wedding gifts like luxury handbags, gems and an apartment, and wedding costs average almost $100,000 total, according to an October 2013 survey by the Korean Consumer Agency. Visitors are expected to bring cash-filled envelopes, chipping in to cover costs and having a cashier write down their contributions in a guest book.

Some young Koreans are rebelling against what they call an extravagant and debt-fueled wedding culture.

In one survey, 85 percent of respondents felt that Korea’s wedding culture is too ostentatious. Still, under social pressure, most go along with an extravagant ceremony, according to the Korean Consumer Agency.

And those cash-filled envelopes?

Sometimes they’re a cover for influence-peddling and bribery, explains Sungsoo Kim, managing director of Transparency International’s Korea chapter. Since 2004, political candidates have been barred from offering cash envelopes except at the funerals and weddings of close relatives, out of fears they could influence voters. Several have faced disciplinary action since then.

“Rich families go to the weddings of other rich families like networking events,” said Hwang Mi-jin, 29, a clothing shop owner who limited her ceremony to a dozen family and close friends.  “They give and take money, and sometimes it is a way for powerful people to scratch each other’s backs. Like there is a business deal coming, even if they don’t state it directly.”

But in South Korea, cash gifts continue to be considered normal, and handouts must be reciprocated in future weddings as a polite gesture. “Even if you don’t agree with the system, there’s intense pressure to follow it or else lose favor among your work partners,” Hwang said. “Some of us say it is an old custom that should be dying.”

Several high-profile figures have been criticized on these grounds, and successive presidents going back to the 1970s have called on the nation to change these practices.

In one famous case, the granddaughter of South Korea’s erstwhile dictator, Chun Doo-hwan, held a sumptuous ceremony at the elite Shilla Hotel in Seoul in 2012, even though Chun claimed he had just a few hundred dollars in his bank account.

Investigators later seized $156 million worth of Chun’s assets, allegedly obtained through bribes and kickbacks in the 1980s.

South Korea is no longer a dictatorship, but this high-rolling custom continues to fuel cronyism on occasion, says

Transparency International’s Kim. It’s the perfect cover considering the difficulty of proving whether a cash envelope amounts to a bribe, he says. “This is basically a way of handing money where nobody sees it,” he explains. “So it’s difficult to catch when this is going on.”

The deep pockets must come from somewhere. “Slush funds at corporations have been revealed in the past,” Kim says. He points out that in 2007, a whistleblowing lawyer famously alleged that Samsung ran secret bank accounts for paying off officials. “But while Korea has good laws to fight corruption, implementation is a problem.” (The Samsung chairman, Lee Kun-hee, was not convicted on this bribery allegation despite being sentenced and pardoned for tax evasion.)

Sometimes, corporate executives will hand out large wads of cash with the intention of strengthening a business relationship, hoping to lay the groundwork for eventual deals with no specific objective in mind. Paying for special treatment is illegal in South Korea.

The efforts to curtail bribery, which has seen a decline in the past two decades, fits into a larger-scale effort to fight the corruption that could hold back this economic powerhouse.

Historically, big corporations would pay “rice cake money” to cabinet ministers, a holiday cash gift in exchange for protection.

But Kim argues that two presidential administrations have rolled back anti-corruption efforts in recent years, curtailing the power of various investigating bodies.

In 2013, South Korea clocked in at 46th out of 177 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), one of the lowest rankings in the OECD club of developed nations. The country’s standing fell for the fourth consecutive year.

Joonhyun Cho contributed reporting.

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