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지나쌤

Perks of being a National Assembly member

By Kim Arin

Published : April 9, 2024 - 16:56

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The National Assembly building in Yeouido, central Seoul (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) The National Assembly building in Yeouido, central Seoul (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Being a member of South Korea’s National Assembly comes with many perks, legal and otherwise.

On top of having the power to legislate, conduct budget reviews, audit and investigate the government and its affiliated institutions, assembly members also enjoy benefits that are not directly related to their parliamentary role.

Every election season, there is some initiative to “abolish the rights and privileges of lawmakers.”

Han Dong-hoon, soon after taking office as the interim leader of the ruling People Power Party, pledged to cut the privileges and benefits of what he called the “political elite and establishment.” He said lawmakers should be paid the median income of their constituency, which was met with backlash from some lawmakers.

“Lawmakers who say they cannot work with the median wage of South Korean households do not belong in the National Assembly in the first place,” he told reporters on Feb. 2. “Lawmakers represent the people, and it is only a step in the right direction.”

South Korea’s median household income for a family of four is 5.4 million won ($3,983) per month, according to Statistics Korea last year. For a single-person household, it is 2 million won. As the monthly wage of an Assembly member is over 13 million won, Han’s proposal would mean a salary cut of up to about 84 percent.

Taking away what are perceived to be the privileges of lawmakers no doubt has some popular appeal.

According to a Gallup Korea poll of 2,435 adults of voting age, conducted in February, 71 percent said lawmakers should get paid a median wage.

His rivals on the other side of the aisle agree to some degree on the premise that lawmakers get too many privileges, one of the most contested of which includes legal immunity from certain criminal justice processes.

Under the Constitution, lawmakers cannot be arrested or detained without the majority consent of the National Assembly. The immunity is designed to protect the independence of the legislative branch from the executive branch, which has the power to enforce laws.

Rep. Lee Jae-myung, the legally embattled leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, as a candidate had vowed to give up his criminal immunity if elected.

Lee, who is a key defendant in five separate criminal cases, has been criticized by his opponents for not keeping his promise. He has had two requests for an arrest warrant come his way in the past year, one of which was struck down by the Democratic Party-controlled Assembly.

Aside from legal protection, an Assembly member can employ nine aides who are paid for by taxpayers. Taxpayers also cover their phone service charges, office supplies and business trip expenses, including business-class flights.

Despite a list of outstanding privileges, the National Assembly has been the least trusted public institution for the last 10 years in a row, according to the Korea Institute of Public Administration’s annual surveys.

In a joint press conference held March 6, four civil rights groups called for “ending lawmaker privileges for political reform.”

“A lawmaker’s wage must be cut to that of the average wage of workers, and the expenses for their activities unrelated to their parliamentary functions should no longer be covered by taxes,” they said in a statement.