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[Op-Ed] `Natural Debt`

Posted May. 07, 2009 08:23,   


In old rural communities, farmers had little to do after the fall harvest. Hard workers made sacks or shoes with rice straws for extra income. Others simply did nothing in winter. Many of them often gathered to gamble, with some of them betting their homes or land. Under Korean law, gambling debts are considered legally invalid because they result from “anti-social acts.” There is no legal way to enforce payment of money or property lost via gambling.

What if one promises to give money or other valuables to win over a bar waitress? The prevailing view is the pledge is also not legally a debt because it constitutes an “act of violating good morals.” In reverse, even if a customer wants to get back the gifts he gave to the waitress, she is not obliged to return them. In legal terms, a debt that requires no repayment is called a “natural debt" or “incomplete debt.”

The concept of a natural debt originates from Roman law. As the Roman Empire recognized the legal creditor-debtor relationship only through strictly legal contracts, the range of natural debt grew wide. Even today, French and Chinese law have specific clauses on natural debt, while those of Korea, Germany and Japan do not. In these three countries, natural debt is recognized only by academic theories and judicial precedents. Former President Roh Moo-hyun is said to have brought up the concept to prosecutors under interrogation on if he received one million dollars from Taekwang Industry CEO Park Yeon-cha.

Roh reportedly said his wife received the money to repay their natural debt. Asked by a prosecutor on why she asked for the money from Park to repay debt that did not need honoring, he gave an ambiguous reply that he would have to ask his wife why. Roh implied that though he had no obligation to honor the debt, he chose to do so due to the creditor’s situation. He could fall into a deeper quagmire while trying to get out of his predicament by utilizing his legal knowledge as a former lawyer and throwing away his dignity as a former president.

Editorial Writer Yook Jeong-soo (sooya@donga.com)