Legislative assistants keep nation on right track

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Legislative assistants keep nation on right track

The National Assembly building in Yeouido is the center of Korean politics where representatives debate and vote to create the nation’s laws.
But behind closed doors and hidden from the cameras are the real movers and shakers: the legislative assistants, a young, ambitious group who are responsible for a lot of the tough behind-the-scenes work.
They draw up bills for Assembly hearings along with researching and organizing meetings with experts on various policies. They are the agenda setters of the day, influencing lawmakers and coordinating with constituents and civic groups.
Three legislative assistants from the Uri, Grand National and Democratic Labor parties gathered one afternoon to discuss their roles and what it means to be assistants to the nation’s policymakers.
“We draw up policy proposals, give analyses and coordinate meetings with politicians,” says Song Chang-wook, 31, an assistant to Uri Representative Lee Eun-young. “Sometimes we argue with the lawmakers.”
Moon Hyung-wook, 38, an assistant to Grand National Representative Yim Tae-hee says, “[Legislative assistants] play a role in setting the direction for the lawmakers. Instead of just doing what they are told, they must play a ‘mentoring’ role.”
The current National Assembly is composed of many reform-minded newcomers including those from the Uri Party, mostly in their 40s who are looking to introduce a fresh perspective to the political establishment.
“In the past, representatives chose their relatives and their kin as legislative assistants to do ‘chores,’ but now assistants play a larger role,” says Mr. Moon.
But the times are changing, and an assistant’s expertise is valued more than their ability to handle secretarial tasks.
“Nowadays, there are a lot of specialists with masters and doctorate degrees, former professors and lawyers,” says Mr. Song. In case of the Democratic Labor Party, Ms. Bae says, “The ratio of male to female legislative assistants is fifty-fifty.”
Mr. Song has been an aspiring politician since his days at Hanyang University where he participated in student government. “I am not an expert in any field, but I have been trained in political affairs all my life,” says Mr. Song.
He started as an assistant to the current minister of health and welfare, Kim Keun-tae, in 2000 and later worked for President Roo Moo-hyun’s campaign.
Mr. Song says “institutionalized politics” is alluring to him as it is frustrating.
With a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University, this is Ms. Bae’s first experience as a legislative assistant. At first glance, Ms. Bae does not come across as a hard-line, militant labor activist usually associated the party.
But since college, she has been an avid progressive reformist and has supported the labor party since its founding. “I feel I’m part of an important time in history, when the Democratic Party has made its way into the National Assembly for the first time,” she says.
Not all of them started off with political ambitions.
Mr. Moon was a public affairs officer during his military service, and because he proved to be a talented speechwriter, he was recommended to be an aide to then-Assemblyman Roh Ki-tae in 1996. After Mr. Roh, he helped current Representative Eom Ho-sung, and now he is an aide to Yim Tae-hee, all of the Grand National Party.
Mr. Moon graduated from Hankuk University of Foreign Languages and has completed his doctorate in social studies at the Academy of Korean Studies. He is also a visiting lecturer at Korea Digital University.
Although legislative assistants from the same party meet regularly, assistants from opposing parties rarely meet unless their bosses serve on the same committees. Their backgrounds vary as do their tenure.
For the Uri party, most legislative assistants come from student activist groups. The fate of the a representative and an assistant go together like needle and thread; if a member loses his or her seat, the assistant is also out of a job. But there are cases where competent ones are rehired by incoming members of the new Assembly or hired by rival parties.
“There are cases where a former Uri legislator’s assistant was scouted by a Grand National Party lawmaker,” says Mr. Moon. “It’s not about ideology, but about working-level qualifications.”
Some of the hardships of being legislative assistants, such as negative perception by the public and the heartbreak that comes from a bill being panned. Mr. Moon says, “People tend to view politics negatively and call it one of the ‘three Ds’ (dirty, difficult, dangerous). I work hard to make a difference, but people think legislators don’t work.”
After his party’s utter stomping in the April 30 elections, Mr. Song said shaking his head, “Everyone’s really in shock. It’s time for us to revamp the party.”
“When the Assembly is in session or if there are hearings, we can’t go home at night because there is so much work to do,” says Ms. Bae.
Mr. Song and Ms. Bae appear to enjoy their work and concur that they are in this for the long haul.
But Mr. Moon says laughing, “There’s nothing I want more than to go back to school to finish my doctorate. My wish is that they’ll let me free.”

by Choi Jie-ho
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