[Outlook]Legislators lack knowledge, variety

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[Outlook]Legislators lack knowledge, variety

The National Assembly’s hearings for Cabinet nominees last week did not live up to expectations in terms of content. The purpose of hearings is not only to evaluate nominees’ ethics but also to examine their knowledge and convictions. But the latest round only focused on the nominees’ past deeds and as a result, their competence was not properly examined.
There are many reasons for this ― conflicting interests among political factions and media reports that search for sensational news, just to name a couple. But a fundamental reason could be lawmakers’ failure to prepare questions that cover and penetrate the main issues. Since lawmakers don’t necessarily have professional knowledge, they often bully nominees when they see issues a little differently.
Nominees, who are the weaker party in the relationship, avoided expressing their opinions because they wanted to avoid confrontations with lawmakers. As a result, the people have lost their chance to learn about the new ministers’ convictions and the directions in which they will steer state affairs. It is uncertain how long we will have to wait before the National Assembly’s hearings become a forum for serious debate on national issues among professionals, just as in advanced countries.
The lack of professionalism in our National Assembly has long been viewed as a serious problem but it doesn’t seem to have improved. For instance, among lawmakers in the 17th National Assembly, there are only 21 who have degrees in science and technology, 7 percent of the total. Even among those, most hold only bachelors’ degrees and then took the national examinations to become civil officials.
Even in the committee for science, technology, information and communication, only two lawmakers out of 20 studied related subjects. The situation has not improved since the 16th National Assembly. The Assembly is much worse in this regard than the administration, which plans to draw 30 percent of its high officials from the science and technology field.
The National Assembly lacks professionals not only in science and technology, but also in many other areas such as national defense, environmental science, culture and health and welfare.
Moreover, most lawmakers move to different standing committees so often that they don’t have the chance to enhance their knowledge in a certain field. Because they don’t have in-depth knowledge, they may raise their voices but they can’t keep the administration in check and they don’t have strong influence on state affairs.
A lack of professionalism is not the only problem. Lack of diversity is another serious problem in the National Assembly. For instance, in the 17th National Assembly, female lawmakers accounted for only 14 percent of the total, making Korea 81st out of 142 countries in terms of female presence in politics, according to a survey conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
The percentage of women lawmakers in our legislature is low, but even that was possible only because 50 percent of the General Assembly’s proportional representatives, who are appointed rather than elected, are women. In practice, only 10 females were elected by local constituencies. The case is much worse for people with physical disabilities. Minorities based on sexual orientation, immigrants and foreigners who become naturalized are not even eligible to become lawmakers.
The National Assembly must balance the complicated interests of countless people. When its composition lacks diversity, lawmakers can’t properly reflect the opinions of the nation.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the situation will improve in the 18th National Assembly. Looking at the political parties’ nomination process for lawmakers, the priority is being put on candidates’ political lineage while professional knowledge or concern for the underprivileged in society is not taken into account.
If this situation persists, only a few figures from the science and technology and the cultural fields, or people with physical disabilities, will become lawmakers mostly by being appointed proportional representatives. Even these appointments will be little more than a formality.
As long as the National Assembly fails to carry out its duties properly, Korea’s politics will forever remain second- or third-rate.
Voters, civic groups and opinion leaders must work hard to make the 18th National Assembly an advanced legislature with more professionalism and diversity.
Most of all, the leaders of political parties must make decisions that meet the expectations of a new era. Then their political parties will survive, and the country will have a bright future.

*The writer is the dean of the College of Natural Science at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Oh Se-jung
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