[VIEWPOINT]Black money, elections don't mixLocal and presidential elections are coming this year. Considering the bare-knuckle criticism and regional issues that have flared up even before election season, it is difficult to see the future direction of our country.
Aware of the situation, the Federation of Korean Industries proclaimed that its members would not provide illicit political funds. The 261 representative members supported the declaration with a standing ovation. Each political party announced that it fully endorsed the federation's decision. Even the deputy prime minister for economic affairs claimed that he would support fully the federation's effort.
Because the organizations representing our largest companies were put in the position of having to announce their decision not to break the law, an observer can see how twisted our society has become.
All past administrations have ended their terms in tragedy because of illicit money, and even though we have had ample experience with such tragedies, the nation's foundations are being shaken again by corruption and financial scandal.
Power and money must be kept separate, but those who have money want power and those who have power crave fast bucks. Corruption never vanishes, and the nation's economy hits bottom. A handful of people are greedy, and the whole nation suffers.
Illegal political funds are black money. When political and business circles cozy up to black money, our markets are distorted and the economy crumbles; profits from our hard labor go into the pockets of those with political and economic power. Such a society cannot endure, so rooting out black money has been asserted as a goal of every political reform movement.
Legislation has always prohibited the illegal transfer of cash from business to politicians, but the connections between the two sectors were never cut off; reality and law were two different things, and there were no legal provisions for any sort of meaningful penalties for breaking the law.
Only at the end of President Kim Young-sam's administration did the law start punishing those who engaged in illegal political funding by mandating a prison term for violators.
But even after that, things have not improved much. Because there are criminal penalties for black money dealings, politicians now concentrate on getting firm control of the Prosecutors Office to protect their funding sources. In addition, the same people use the law to threaten the opposition parties or individual politicians. That is the present situation.
Now the business community has announced that it would not respond to requests by politicians for illegal cash. Businessmen must have come to the conclusion that if their connections with politicians continue, not only will their businesses come under pressure from political interference, but the whole economy will go into a downturn. That is not very conducive to global competitiveness. The Federation of Korean Industries' decision was a good one.
Perhaps, though, the decision by the federation does not go far enough. There are still legal ways for companies to give money to individual politicians and to political parties.
Companies earn money through the efforts of many company officials and employees, and the money belongs to the firm's shareholders, who have widely varying political interests and views. To give that money to specific parties or individual politicians is an infringement on the political interests and the property rights of those people.
Because companies have exercised their influence with political donations, political funding laws were reformed last year to allow labor unions the same right to make political donations. The same principle applies; a labor union that gives money to candidates the union leadership prefers infringes on the rights of individual union members who have different political views.
Therefore, whether it is companies or labor unions, political funds originate in personal property and it is appropriate to prohibit political funding by companies or by labor unions.
The expansion of public management of elections is one of the methods suggested to end illegal campaign contributions and under-the-table political funding. Even under the present system, however, a huge amount of tax money is spent on election expenses and political party grants. We must examine whether that would be appropriate.
It is easy to cut off black money. Since it is prohibited by law, we can do it if the prosecution and the courts treat violators fairly without political partisanship. It is not necessary to take the difficult route when there is an easy way.
The writer is a professor of constitutional law at Seoul National University.
by Jeong Jong-seop