The Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s first parliamentary audit is quickly sinking into an abrasive political battlefield where unproductive wrangling between rival parties obscures the real issues that matter to the public and the country.
Although people tend to pin little hope on the parliamentary inspection, which started Tuesday and is scheduled to run through Oct. 24, what played out on the first day at the National Assembly was still disappointing.
In fact, South Korean lawmakers are now kicking around far too many political footballs -- ranging from President Yoon’s overseas trip marred by a profanity-laced comment to an investigation into North Korean soldiers’ shooting in 2020 of a South Korean public official in the West Sea and the case's alleged connection to former President Moon Jae-in.
Against this festering backdrop, lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties, both mired in their own prejudices and vested interests, are expected to continue quarreling while achieving few, if any, meaningful results.
More worrisome is that by engaging in such wasteful wrangling, lawmakers are very likely to ignore more critical issues such as a deepening economic crisis and rising geopolitical tensions.
At the very beginning of the parliamentary inspection by the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, the main opposition party fired a salvo against President Yoon over his recent three-nation trip, calling it a “diplomatic disaster.”
Yoon touched off a wave of disputes by making a profanity-laced remark during the trip, and his hurriedly arranged 30-minute meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in New York was blasted by the opposition party as “humiliating diplomacy.”
During the audit, the Democratic Party demanded that Foreign Minister Park Jin resign from his post to take responsibility for the diplomatic mishaps. The opposition party last week passed a motion calling for Park’s dismissal over the dispute, but Yoon rejected it.
Lawmakers from the ruling People Power Party defended the embattled minister and the outcome of Yoon’s trip, saying that it was intended to thaw frosty ties with Japan.
The rival parties, meanwhile, sparred with each other at the Legislative and Judiciary Committee’s audit over the ongoing investigation into the death of a South Korean public official. Last month, the Board of Audit and Inspection sent an email to Moon and requested a response to questions over the tragic incident. Moon reportedly expressed displeasure with the probe, and the opposition party dubbed it as “political retaliation.”
Similarly intense clashes were found elsewhere. At the Education Committee, the parties fought over witnesses linked to first lady Kim Keon-hee over the accusation that she allegedly plagiarized her academic theses. At the National Defense Committee, the relocation of the presidential office -- a controversial election pledge by Yoon -- was at the center of dispute, with the opposition party suggesting that the project had cost nearly 1 trillion won ($707 million).
Some of the facts revealed during the audit may shed light on what went wrong and what should be done to fix policy problems, but a closer look at the details of major controversies and how lawmakers devoted much of their audit time to flinging accusations rather than genuine enquiry suggest that they are unlikely to hammer out any tangible compromise.
While lawmakers are kicking about political footballs, public concerns are soaring about the challenges facing the Korean economy. Rising interest rates and consumer prices, the precipitous fall of the Korean won against the US dollar and worsening trade conditions are threatening to bring about a serious economic crisis.
On the geopolitical front, North Korea on Tuesday fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile that flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific, and recent satellite imagery showed the North’s continued activity at its main nuclear test facility in Punggye-ri, signaling preparations for future tests.
Given the volatile situation, lawmakers must shift their focus from wasteful political fights to more urgent issues during the audit. If not, they will just prove their incompetence again.