The prospects for Prime Minister nominee Lee Nak-yon are cloudy, with opposition parties refusing to adopt the confirmation hearing report for him.
The sticking point was a false address registration his wife made.
It is one of five irregularities President Moon Jae-in pledged to use as yardsticks to tell eligible from ineligible candidates for public office.
False address registration involves moving in a certain district on paper while living elsewhere. It is an illegal act usually committed to facilitate real estate speculation or get children places at good schools.
A fake address has been regarded as an important touchstone to judge senior officials’ ethics. It was one of major reasons for the withdrawal of nominations in past administrations.
Lee admitted his wife had falsely moved to Gangnam-gu, Seoul, in 1989, to teach at a school there.
Worse still, Lee was not the only nominee with this problem. Fair Trade Commission Chairman nominee Kim Sang-jo and Foreign Minister nominee Kang Kyung-wha reportedly registered false addresses.
Their faults may vary in seriousness, but Cheong Wa Dae cannot but feel embarrassed.
Moon’s chief of staff Im Jong-seok apologized to the nation at a press briefing on Friday, and asked for understanding from the confirmation hearing committee. Im said, “I admit election campaigning and managing state affairs are different.”
Opposition parties did not accept his apology and explanation. They demand Moon apologize and express his position directly.
Difficulty in vetting Lee before nominating him as prime minister is understandable because there was no transition period. Moon nominated Lee as prime minister on May 10, his first day in office.
Yet it is an undeniable fact that the public expects high ethical standards from senior officials.
It has been hard to find highly qualified and ethically unproblematic candidates for positions of high public office. The Moon administration is not the first to face this problem, but that does not mean his five criteria for nomination have no merit or he has to change them. There is no wonder senior officials are required to meet the criteria, to say the least.
Im’s acknowledgement of difficulty in finding competent and morally impeccable persons can be seen positively, but his remark suggesting job performance comes before ethical issues is controversial.
The problem is that Moon has broken his principles on nomination. It was Moon who vowed not to appoint those who had evaded military duty, speculated in real estate, dodged taxes, registered false addresses or plagiarized theses.
Liberal leftists have slammed conservative rightists for corruption, but the false address issue involving the three nominees makes people think they are ethically no different from conservatives. Shady conduct by nominees deserves criticism, regardless of ideology.
Moon should show the nation he will stick to his own nomination principles if he wants to keep the people’s faith in him. Being frank to opposition parties is needed to get their cooperation. He should also strengthen his vetting system as soon as possible.
False address registration is not a light crime for civil servants, but there are mixed views on whether it is sufficient cause to reject a nominee. There is an argument that specific standards need to be drawn up to determine which wrongdoings should result in rejection of a nominee. Whether other minor faults are reasons for disapproval should be factored in to the final decision.
If an exceptionally competent person is excluded from nomination due to immaterial ethical issues, it would be a loss to national development.
Every time the regime changes, the tables turn in the confirmation hearings. The parties exchange positions of offense and defense. Hearings sometimes become a sort of revenge for regime change, with scrutiny turning into scolding and humiliation. Even if a nominee wins confirmation, scars remain.
It is time for the parties to consider establishing specific and objective criteria for confirmation.
A closed-door scrutiny into private issues of a nominee, followed by an open hearing on their ability to perform jobs, is also worth consideration.