[EDITORIALS]Misuse of a good practiceThe details of the personal fortunes of about 1,000 senior government officials, lawmakers, judges and senior prosecutors are now open to the public. The whole nation has experienced a big controversy every year when the records have been announced since the government mandated senior public servants to disclose their wealth in 1993. This year is no exception. Now heated debates and controversies are embroiling the media and the Internet, reflecting society’s critical attitude toward the wealthy public servants.
The law that mandates public servants to report their assets to the government and makes such data open to the public was established to fend off corruption and prevent public servants from amassing fortunes in illegal ways. But the law has been entangled with political implications since its inception. Former President Kim Young-sam, as soon as he took office, revealed details of all of his assets at a cabinet meeting to nudge other officials to follow suit. The move was aimed at stripping power from politicians and government officials deeply linked to former military regimes.
As a result, he succeeded in ousting most of these officials and politicians from office, and it is also true that the rule helped make the local political terrain more transparent. The law also barred government economic officials from investing in stocks by taking advantage of information they obtained at work. Also, it helped many people who aspired to become senior officials change their ways and avoid amassing fortunes in inappropriate ways.
But there were many side effects as well. Rich public servants were forced to leave their jobs even without being given a chance to explain how they made their fortunes. It did not matter whether they merely inherited the fortunes or they made the money in legitimate ways. Being rich was synonymous with being corrupt.
But the more serious problem is that the hostile social attitude towards rich public servants did not change as time has passed. The public servants and their families go through painful times whenever they have to reveal their own assets. The media also rushes to publish the 10 richest in each governmental body, saying that some have large plots of land and some have enormous diamond rings or hundreds of millions in cash. Such actions fan populism, voyeurism and envy towards the rich.
Thirteen years have passed since the disclosures began. The public climate that sneers at rich government officials should change. The purpose of the law is to prevent corruption and speculation.
The government also needs to keep a close eye on the changes in public servants’ fortunes over the years, rather than merely making such information public.