[Viewpoint]Watching the watchdog
The National Assembly’s investigation into the direct payment of rice farming subsidies came to nothing. The subsidy is supposed to benefit farmers, but those unrelated to rice farming pocketed the money illegally. Citizens were furious only two months ago. The abuse of the subsidy program provided us a chance to, for a change, inspect the Board of Audit and Inspection.
The rice farming subsidy program became a big deal because the Board of Audit and Inspection found cases of abuse a long time ago. The alleged concealment and reduction of investigation results led to a National Assembly probe. As a result, the BAI’s highest inspectors expressed their intention to resign at the end of October. The chairman of the Board of Audit and Inspection submitted a plan to be approved by the president to replace the executives, and a drastic personnel reshuffle is expected to happen soon. Among the six inspectors, four are expected to be replaced.
For a number of reasons, the Board of Audit and Inspection is facing one of the greatest challenges in its history.
The Board of Audit and Inspection is a constitutional government agency whose organization, structure and authority are defined in the Constitution. Therefore, in order to close the agency or change its status, a Constitutional revision is necessary. The Board of Audit and Inspection is an independent agency. Clause 2 of the Board of Audit and Inspection Law states, “The Board of Audit and Inspection is under the president but operates autonomously.” While it belongs to the office of the president, the board has the power to inspect all government affairs and agencies, including the president himself.
Because of the enormous power entrusted to the board, the inspectors are expected to have strict independence and political neutrality. However, a series of events made the citizens look with suspicion on whether the Board of Audit and Inspection is operating properly.
It tried to conceal the rice farm subsidy abuse that occurred during the last administration. And earlier this year after the presidential election result was finalized, it made a fuss by conducting frequent inspection reports into the transition committee.
In late May, when the candlelight vigils were at their peak, the board suddenly started a preliminary investigation into the National Human Rights Commission and went on to conduct a full investigation in early June. This created the appearance that the investigation was politically motivated.
It is supposed to transcend power and value autonomy and neutrality more than any other government agency, but the board has been sensitive to and quick to please the powers that be. Naturally, people are calling for an inspection of the Board of Audit and Inspection.
So how can the board get through the crisis? It is voluntarily reorganizing its internal structure. By newly establishing a public agency inspection bureau, it hopes to reinforce the inspection function of government organizations. The inspection and claims investigation team will be expanded to a bureau in order to promptly handle cases in which citizens are interested. However, these internal attempts do not provide a fundamental solution.
In order to reinvent the Board of Audit and Inspection, the status of the board needs to be changed, even if it means revising the Constitution. Making the board an independent agency that does not belong to any of the legislative, judiciary and executive branches will be a fundamental step to systematically guaranteeing the board’s independence.
The National Human Rights Commission is viewed positively for its independent operation, and it only garners such a reputation because it does not belong to any of the three branches.
If the Board of Audit and Inspection remains directly under the president, it cannot escape the chief executive’s influence. The relationship hinders its ability to independently inspect the executive branch.
Germany, France and Japan used to have similar agencies under their executive branches but after World War II, they established independent agencies that do not belong to any branches for this reason.
Constitutional revision takes time. So we can start with things we can do without taking that step. A series of systems need to be prepared to ensure transparency. For example, all inspection results can be posted online right after the board’s meetings unless the issue is directly related to national security. The Board of Audit and Inspection has to be an independent organization that works exclusively for the citizens and exercises its power transparently. That is its
The writer is a professor of constitutional law at Sogang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.