[Viewpoint] Absolute power corrupts absolutely

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[Viewpoint] Absolute power corrupts absolutely

The Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission was born around President Lee Myung-bak’s inauguration in February last year out of the merger of three corruption watchdogs: the Ombudsman of Korea, the Korea Independent Commission against Corruption and the Administrative Appeals Commission.

The institution existed largely in name only with few newsworthy activities. People shuddering at the thought of sweeping anti-corruption campaigns by the watchdog agencies of the previous two governments believed they had either managed to shut them down or at least hide them somewhere.

Then, suddenly, the agency stepped into the limelight. The publicity was brought not by its role in relieving public troubles or raising public service ethics, but by the new man at the helm.

Lee Jae-oh, a former lawmaker and a close confidant of President Lee, made his political comeback as the commission head. He made news and controversy soon after taking office by demanding regular meetings involving higher-ups from the Board of Audit and Inspection, prosecutors’ offices, the police and the National Tax Office. He pronounced before legislators that the commission’s role would be stronger and soon followed up with action, presenting a bill to expand the commission’s role and function.

Under the reform bill, the commission will report directly to the president instead of the prime minister and will gain unfettered access to the financial data of civil servants suspected of malfeasance.

It is demanding the right to search and investigate individuals’ finances to clamp down on corruption, a role and authority currently divided among the National Tax Office, the Financial Supervisory Service and the prosecutors.

In short, it wants to transform itself into an omnipotent supervisor of public service.

A commander of such authority would naturally want to report to no one below the president and demand a say in cabinet meetings. He aims to build a government supervisory agency eclipsing all others, and it is no wonder his attempts are being met with strong resistance and protest from others in the government.

More worrisome is the hubris and arbitrariness behind the pursuit of such authority.

There is no question that we need stronger authority to root out corruption in the civil service. No one will deny efforts to root out misconduct are essential.

But no one can fully understand why it is that the commission needs greater authority to reinforce disciplinary ethics standards in public offices.

Are the current supervising authorities - the Board of Audit and Inspection, the prosecution, the police, the Financial Supervisory Service and other investigative organizations - that incompetent and untrustworthy? Or are we in need of a stronger central command to destroy evil? There has been no explanation whatsoever.

In a democratic government, every policy, big or small, must go through a process of debate and agreement before implementation. Changes without consensus support can spawn bad repercussions and lead to the lack of a mandate for authority.

A public office head out to gain greater power based on his own will and judgment is clearly an act of overstretch and contempt for democratic procedures.

Such an authority cannot be in the hands of someone self-serving.

Democratic societies adopt the separation of powers for governance in acknowledgement of humans’ natural susceptibility to hubris and greed. It is in human nature to pursue self-interest. When given power, money and prestige, few can avoid the temptation to exploit them for selfish purposes.

It is vain to criticize human nature. That’s why this kind of authority should be exercised by a system, not an individual.

We cannot block the influence on policy of the friends of the president, but a democracy won’t tolerate any individual’s attempt to exercise supremacy over other government offices.

*The writer is a professor at Kyung Hee University’s School of International Studies.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Jung Ha-lyong

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