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[Kim Myong-sik] Noisy but fruitless rows over official appointments

After nearly two years in power, people holding high posts in the Moon Jae-in administration must have by now realized that one of the hardest parts of the job is to prove they are ethically stronger than those they replaced.

Kim Eui-gyum, presidential spokesman until last month, had famously said, “There is no civilian surveillance in the DNA of the Moon government.” He was trying to distinguish the current liberal administration from the previous conservative rules of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye in respecting civil rights and other aspects of governance.

The proud remarks boomeranged as oppositionists and critical media have since vigorously explored the genes of improprieties in the components of the new power, and their efforts have been amply rewarded. Kim quit the Blue House service as he provided an embarrassing example of property speculation DNA with the disclosure he had bought a dilapidated two-story building for 2.5 billion won ($2.19 million) with heavy loans, expecting a big profit through urban redevelopment.

Kim’s scandal has been quickly overshadowed by new topics involving the seven nominees for ministerial posts in President Moon’s partial Cabinet reshuffle early this month, all of whom faced an opposition onslaught citing individual faults and dubious job qualifications. One of them bowed out, the nomination was canceled for another and the remaining five were the subjects of a fierce battle between rival parties over corruptibility.

Park Young-sun, the newly appointed minister of SMEs and startups, was attacked chiefly for her lawyer husband’s handling of cases involving Samsung Group, Park’s main target in her conglomerate bashing in the past as an opposition Assemblywoman. Kim Youn-chul, new minister of unification with an academic background, had more negative qualifications. His public remarks retrieved by media contained vulgarities hardly befitting a scholar or any level of public servant.

Then, enter nominee for Constitutional Court justice: Lee Mi-sun. The 49-year-old former senior judge at the Seoul Central District Court instantly became the target of ethical censure because she and her lawyer husband had stocks currently valued at 3.5 billion won, accounting for some 80 percent of the couple’s total assets. They were found to have bought the stocks of an energy and chemical firm that happened to be a party in suits Lee and her husband had separately handled as judges.

Leaving the big noise in the National Assembly confirmation hearings (no votes are required) and civic forums behind, Moon appointed the five to the Cabinet and Lee to the Constitutional Court. Lee and her husband sold all their equity of eTech E&C and Glasslock before she swore in to become the third female justice of the nine-member tribunal, the sixth with liberal propensity, and the youngest of them all.

The Blue House said the appointment of Lee, who hails from the southern port city of Busan, was primarily for the sake of diversity in the top court, which can rule any legal provision unconstitutional and advise the legislature to correct the clauses in question. Yet, a serious question remains as to why the president had to pick from the pool of some 200-300 senior judges one who has ignored the important universal code of ethics regarding conflicts of interest.

Since his inauguration in May 2017, President Moon and his Democratic Party of Korea have dashed on the path of obliterating the long-hardened conservative, pro-American, anti-communist frame of administration as well as practices of law enforcement and labor relations that had endured since the 1950-53 Korean War, only briefly stirred during the 10-year liberal rule of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

In late 2016 when people rose against the incompetent, nepotistic rule of Park Geun-hye with the peaceful candlelight demonstrations, Moon’s main opposition force emerged as the alternative power. As the electorate gave him 41 percent support in a five-way contest, the winner made an abrupt left turn, although the election did not mean the people were in favor of entirely changing national direction in the political, social and economic lives.

Rightist forces crumbled, shouldering the black legacy of the Park Geun-hye and Choi Sun-sil misadventures, yet the leftists were unprepared -- professionally and morally. Moon made appointments mainly in consideration of candidates’ services rendered in the election campaign rather than proven expertise. The Blue House staff, consisting largely of former anti-government activists, exhibited a certain moral superiority complex to reject media criticism and opposition claims of appointees’ individual faults.

If the presidential secretaries responsible for vetting the backgrounds of Cabinet appointees or any candidates for lofty government positions were properly doing their jobs, wouldn’t they have a second thought about recommending a judge in a district court who, along with her husband, made 5,200 stock purchases between 2013 and 2018 for appointment to a seat in the top court?

Critics blame them for failing to look at matters “from the eye level of the people.” However, the average people’s standards of judgment are not consistent. People have lived through conservative and liberal rules, and they by now are wise enough not to give absolute scores to one side. An opinion survey on Lee Mi-sun’s appointment revealed that approval rate rose by 15 percentage points after she took office to a pro and con balance of 43-47.

In the Korea of 2019, no person or single political group can monopolize ethical superiority. Pessimism prevails as to the nation’s justice system as we see how the people in the court of law are ideologically divided and condemn each other for collaboration with other branches of government in the past. Emotional distrust deepens in the benches from the left-right conflict.

Moreover, Koreans’ sense of justice today is stirred by the current ruling power’s reconciliatory approach to North Korea that not only pigeonholes the decades-old antipathy toward the dynastic dictatorship, but turns away from the dire human rights situation there. People’s pride in their democratic accomplishments can be felt diminishing.

Denuclearization and prevention of war are great causes that may justify our government’s oblivion with the rights and freedom of the 25 million Koreans in the North. The problem is this approach of expediency condoning the North Korean evil could affect the social milieu in the South possibly to degrade its standards of goodness and fairness and confuse the sense of ethics applied to government operations and politics. Recent noisy but fruitless controversies over official appointments prove the peril.

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at -- Ed.