What Is Roh Doing with Ancient Roman Law?

      May 07, 2009 12:03

      In ancient Rome, officials recognized the effectiveness of donations. A law called "cincia" which was created in 204 B.C. allowed a recipient to seek a legal mandate to have the donor make good on their pledge should they fail to live up to it. This law was enacted to get more people to make donations to the emperor and the temples of the gods. If a prisoner of war or a slave was granted his freedom, he merely needed to take an oath in front of many people when a donor paid for their freedom. No contract had to be signed to secure it.

      Recipients of donations were not obliged to repay their debts, and the owner of a slave was not obliged to repay that slave for any services rendered. The Romans called this a "natural obligation." The relevant law was enacted during the reign of the emperor Augustus between the first and second centuries A.D.

      Modern law, which recognizes the binding nature of all contracts and debts, does not recognize natural obligations, but from a theoretical point of view the concept continues to exist, since there are still debts in real life that do not have to be repaid.

      In 1993, the Seoul District Court said a worshipper who reneged on a pledge to donate W10 million (US$1=W1,278) to build a new church building, was not obliged to make that payment as demanded by church officials. The court considered his pledge a natural obligation that could not be enforced. Natural obligations also apply to debtors who are given a reprieve after being declared bankrupt or in cases where the lender and debtor both agree to write the debt off. Although interpretations vary, money that a patron of a bar promises to give to a hostess is also considered a natural obligation in some cases.

      When questioned by prosecutors on April 30, former president Roh Moo-hyun is said to have claimed that the US$1 million he received from Taekwang Industry CEO Park Yeon-cha was used to settle a debt. When prosecutors asked Roh why he did not mention that debt when he revealed his assets as required by law for all public servants, Roh told them it was because the debt was a natural obligation.

      When Changshin Textile chairman Kang Keum-won faked a real estate deal to raise money to repay a W1.9 billion debt Roh incurred while operating a mineral water venture back in May 2003, the former president called the transaction a "goodwill business deal." When he apologized to the public on April 7, Roh also said the $5 million his niece received from Park was an investment that involved "goodwill." Every time financial deals between him and those around him became a problem, Roh has used the defense that the transactions were based on "goodwill." Now, being the lawyer that he is, Roh has dug up the ancient Roman concept of natural obligation. From any point of view, his behavior is undignified and does not honor the status of a former president.

      By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Hong-jin

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