White Envelope

Giles Ryan

© Copyright 2023 by Giles Ryan

Photo by Richard Loller.
Photo by Richard Loller.

It’s a delicate business, paying a bribe. Unlike other transactions, the amount you’re expected to pay may be unstated, no more than an estimate, but whatever you pay must be enough, and yet you certainly don’t want to pay too much, for that might spoil the market for others. And the thing must be done properly, so as to leave no ill feeling on either side. It takes a deft hand, and it’s not a situation that allows for gaucherie.

In the summer of 1984, I was managing the Seoul branch of an American company when our Seattle head office decided to transfer me to Tokyo, a serious uprooting for me and my wife and our two year old boy. Our recent few years in Seoul had resulted in the accumulation of more furnishings than my bachelor days ever knew, and it would take a moving company to pack it up and a shipping container to hold it all. The head office would cover the cost, (and why not? — this transfer wasn’t my idea), but it was all sudden and disconcerting. In any event, on the appointed day the movers took everything in hand while my family and I went to the Hilton Hotel for the last days before departure. 

Mr. Kang from the office handled most of the arrangements, but then he told me that I must attend the final customs inspection and sign some documents before the shipment could move on. There was some hesitation in his manner, but we had worked together for a long time, so I could sense something was amiss. Besides, he had mentioned a customs inspector, and in those days their ways were well known, so I could guess the problem. Moreover, our daily work involved auditing the shipping lines in the major freight pricing cartels, so we had both seen some startling things. Shipping and the maritime business are not too many generations removed from piracy, and experience had taught me that the waterfronts of the world are their own domain with their own rules. 

Right. How much?” I asked, going straight to the point. 

A hundred thousand wŏn” said Mr. Kang. This was a bit more than pocket change but not really exorbitant — it was about what I would have guessed. But he was surprised when I said I would pay this. No, no, not at all, he insisted the company should pay it, this was the usual thing. After all, moving to Tokyo was a company transfer. 

And then I understood why he was telling me about this — not because I should bear the cost, but because he wanted me to hand it over in person. Of course, I thought, he doesn’t want to be in the middle, and although I had complete confidence in his honesty, I understood he didn’t want to be in a situation where there could be the slightest doubt that the entire amount was being passed on.

Oh yes, of course,” I said, “we’ll go together and I’ll handle this.” 

The next morning, a bright sunny day with a pure blue sky above, we went to a bonded container depot on the outskirts of Seoul and met the customs inspector at the appointed time. He was standing by the rear of a shipping container mounted on a wheeled chassis, and the container had already been sealed, indicating it had already been inspected, or at least nominally so. 

The customs inspector was clearly surprised to see me, and he gave Mr. Kang a questioning look, but my colleague simply introduced me and stated the obvious, that I was the owner of the cargo and had come along to sign the necessary papers. I made some small talk — a beautiful day, yes? I suppose everything is in order, right? And do you have the forms for me to sign? — and with this I pointed to his clipboard. 

But his eyes were on my other hand, which held a white envelope, which in the circumstances could only mean one thing. He gave Mr. Kang a look of complete surprise, which told me the fellow had never done this with an American. Mr. Kang just smiled as if this were the usual thing, (clearly he was enjoying the scene.) The deed itself was simple enough, but these things have their own punctilio. No one speaks of payment or refers to it directly; you may look the other fellow in the eye but you never stare, you may smile but do so sincerely, with no hint of censure. And the cash must be in a white envelope. My previous experience had been in Bangladesh and Thailand, where hard cash on a soft palm would never offend anyone, but in Korea, a douceur required a veneer of subtlety. 

The inspector passed me the clipboard, explaining that I should sign the places marked, and with his other hand he reached for the envelope and quickly moved it to his coat pocket with the dexterity that comes only from long practice. There was no receipt, (there never is), but back in the office we’d gin something up. Our business done, we bid him farewell and went on our way. A few weeks later, everything was delivered intact to our new home in Tokyo.

Well, now..... anyone may look at these lines and wonder, How could I do something so terrible? How could I speak of it so lightly when the thing itself was clearly wrong? But anyone offended by all this would perhaps be someone who has not lived so much in the wider world. Any hasty judgement overlooks the blunt truth that no one ever willingly paid a bribe. By its very nature, the transaction is compelled. In this instance, the only alternative was to see our family possessions — of no high price perhaps but of great value to us — held up interminably in a state of uncertainty or, worst case, simply vanish. Certainly I paid up. 

And I put the whole matter behind me. Of course, this was long ago, in a time when Korea had a military dictator in Chun Doo-hwan, and corruption was the norm. Today, Korea is a different country, far more democratic than the U.S., (systematic voter suppression is unknown in Korea), and while there may still be irregularities, any contemporary corruption is constrained; indeed, Korean politicos these days run the undeniable risk of ending up in prison, and more than a few have done so. Corruption is far worse  in Russia or the United States, where, in effect, it has state sanction; in Russia this takes the form of a police state where any importunate reformers may be killed on the street — indeed, even on a street in another country — while in the United States, corruption is conducted under cover of campaign finance laws confirmed by courts suborned by a political class funded by the corporations who reap the benefits. In both countries, the result is essentially the same, a de facto oligarchy.

But the scale of corruption calls out for comparison. The small bribery I describe above — the petit mal corruption of the bureaucrats and state hirelings with their small tasks of limited scope — is just that, petty, trivial and altogether circumscribed in its impact when compared to the grand mal malfeasance of the Russian and American oligarchs. For corruption on a grand scale always — always — gives the greatest advantage to a narrow, select group at the pinnacle of society, a group which includes both the givers and the takers. These people find every way, every specious twist of logic to justify the abandonment of principle in pursuit of what they do.

But of course the oligarchs’ grand corruption cannot be truly compared to the bureaucrat supplementing his salary with the occasional sweetener. Aside from the difference in scale, which is enormous — indeed, of a wholly different dimension — there is the matter of method, what we may call the atmospherics of the thing.

The bribe paid to some government apparatchik in whatever country is typically a private encounter, played pianissimo. But the oligarch’s bribe, for both giver and taker, occurs on a grand stage and demands a much wider world, where both sides have their multiple intermediaries, with lawyers at hand, giving cover each step along the way, to say nothing of the vast sums flowing from account to account, imperceptibly cleaner with each shift, and all of this occurring in mysterious off-shore banks on far away isles. 

Oh, no, the oligarchs’ corruption is worlds away and on an epic scale of sin with a cinematic cast of sinners. It is far, far beyond the scope of any white envelope.

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