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[Editorial] Open hearing

Ruling party seeks to legislate closed-door confirmation hearing regarding ethics

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea seeks to legislate closed-door confirmation hearing regarding ethical issues related to nominees to senior public offices.

Rep. Hong Young-pyo proposed a confirmation hearing amendment bill Monday that will split hearings into two parts -- one dealing with ethics and the other scrutinizing competence. The bill requires the part on ethics to be conducted behind closed doors.

The United Future Party and other opposition parties are reacting strongly against the bill, criticizing the ruling party for trying to have its own way with the confirmation hearing system on the strength of its great majority.

As a matter of fact, the National Assembly’s confirmation hearings often descended into a shaming session for nominees, after opposition lawmakers dug into their past.

This has caused competent people to refuse to be nominated for fear of the harsh screening process. This amounts to no small damage to the national interest.

But controversies over the ethical standards of a nominee have largely been attributable to the presidential office’s dysfunctional vetting of nomination candidates. If hearings are conducted behind closed doors, proper verification of ethics can hardly be expected.

If a person is to be appointed to a high-ranking public post, job performance is definitely important, but more important than that is ethics. A senior public official with reprehensible ethics cannot be supported or trusted by the people. If an official fails to gain popular confidence, state affairs can hardly be administered properly, and people have to bear the results of improper government administration.

Information on the ethical standards of senior officials-to-be is essential for the people. People have a right to know whether nominees are ethically qualified or not. A closed-door hearing on ethical issues is as good as omitting a hearing. It is questionable if the ruling camp intends to give positions to supporters on its side, ethically faulty as that may be.

The perception of confirmation hearings as useless or a repetitive call for debate on the improvement of the system stem from the president’s appointment regardless of ethical problems revealed in such hearings. For example, President Moon Jae-in appointed Cho Kuk as Justice Minister despite mounting allegations in the media against him. Cho eventually stepped down amid strong backlash from the people.

Moon has never expressed regret nor apologized over controversies related to his personnel decisions. After Cho’s resignation, Moon said he owed him “a debt of gratitude.” He even brushed off lawmakers who opposed his nominations by saying that “those who had a hard time during confirmation hearings tend to perform better once they are appointed.”

One cannot wonder if the ruling party has some reason to legislate secret hearings in the situation where the president eventually appoints his nominees regardless of related hearings.

Confirmation hearings have contributed to raising the popular awareness of public officials’ ethics. The system has discouraged ethically problematic figures, leaving them to give up on high posts. This role of confirmation hearings should be kept alive.

Given Moon’s personnel style of nominating figures only from his support base and appointing them regardless of the outcomes of the hearing, now is the time to enhance the authority of confirmation hearings and raise their effectiveness. Confirmation hearings must be reformed to check unilateral appointments. Also, Cheong Wa Dae’s vetting system must be strengthened.

Closed-door confirmation hearings were pushed in 2013 by the then-ruling Saenuri Party, from which the United Future Party descended, but they fell through due to resistance from the then-opposition and current ruling Democratic Party.

This time, the Democratic Party seeks to introduce secret hearings.

At that time, the opposition party opposed the system, saying a closed-door hearing would make it impossible to scrutinize crucial ethical issues such as real estate speculation, draft evasion, tax evasion and false address registration. It noted that people cannot know how serious a nominee’s ethical problems are. The party also criticized the ruling party for disregarding the nominator’s responsibility and blaming the system.

This criticism was right at that time and it is so even now, as Chin Jung-kwon, a polemist, noted.