They had promised that they would give up their privileges, yet the National Assembly’s veto of the Justice Ministry’s request for the arrest of ruling Saenuri Party lawmaker Song Kwang-ho Wednesday is a clear reminder that the lawmakers have no intention of giving up their privileges ― immunity from arrest while the National Assembly is in session being one of them.
The four-term legislator is suspected of having taken some 65 million won in bribes from a supplier of railroad parts while serving in the National Assembly’s Infrastructure & Transportation Committee. He is accused of helping it win government contracts related to the construction of high-speed railways in the Jeolla provinces in return. In requesting the arrest, Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn said that there was sufficient evidence, as well as detailed and consistent statements, to prove the criminal charges against Song.
The parliamentary immunity that protects legislators from arrest while the National Assembly is in session serves primarily to protect lawmakers from arrest for political reasons. In the case of Song, his arrest was sought for bribe-taking, not based on political repression.
In Wednesday’s secret ballot, 118 voted against the arrest while only 73 legislators voted in favor. Eight lawmakers abstained and 24 votes were counted as invalid. With the abstentions and the invalid votes considered as passive votes against the arrest, the National Assembly will find it difficult to escape the criticism that it acted to protect one of its own to the detriment of the public interest.
Given the legislature’s record on rejecting requests for the arrest of Assembly members, perhaps this outcome should not come as a surprise. About two-thirds of all requests for arrests made since the first National Assembly have been rejected. Of the total of 56 such requests, 13 were rejected while 24 were never even voted on and automatically lapsed after passing the deadline for acting on the arrest requests.
In vetoing the Justice Ministry’s request for Song’s arrest, the lawmakers have broken their promise to give up their privileges. But then, reneging on a pledge is hardly surprising, coming as it does from politicians.
What is really worrisome is that the case shows the National Assembly’s lack of resolve in eliminating the collusion between the bureaucracy and businesses. The railway bribery case was uncovered during a sweeping probe into collusion between the bureaucracy and businesses, a probe prompted by the sinking of the Sewol ferry which claimed more than 300 lives. Collusion between the bureaucracy and businesses was largely blamed for the tragic incident and the country vowed that such practices must be rooted out.
Yet, with the rejection of the request for Song’s arrest, the National Assembly has shown that it is keener to protect one of its own than to cooperate with the prosecutors in investigating the bribery scandal, which could potentially have put railway passengers’ lives at risk.
With their moral credibility in tatters now, the legislators will face a difficult time convincing the people that the impasse on the special Sewol bill, a proposed law that aims to investigate and discover what caused the loss of so many lives, is based on any principle of law or greater public interest.
Collusion between bureaucrats and the owner of the Sewol is largely blamed for the tragic incident; Song is suspected of being part of a similar collusion, but the National Assembly vetoed a request for Song’s arrest that would have allowed the prosecution to broaden its investigation. Does the National Assembly intend to play any part in rooting out collusion between bureaucrats, politicians and business?