[Viewpoint] How Korea lobbies

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[Viewpoint] How Korea lobbies

They more or less dug their own grave. We’re talking about the politicians who conspired to railroad through a law on political fundraising that would have pardoned legislators in trouble for taking illegal donations. The ruling and opposition camps, who bitterly wrangle over every issue large a small, suddenly became bosom buddies on this bill, which would have benefitted lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Talk about a sudden spirit of bipartisanship! They marched themselves into the eye of a storm by their sneakiness and hypocrisy.

But the essence of the problem was in the practice of lobbying itself.

Lobbying in the United States is a right of individuals, groups and corporations protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Anyone can act as lobbyist and advocate the interests of an organization in the making of public policies and laws. Lobbyists explain and provide information to legislators or government officials in order to help them reach rational decisions on legislation. Lobbying has a negative and even illegal connotation in Korea, yet nonetheless the practice is commonplace.

Senior government officials have long been assured of high-paying, high-profile jobs in law or corporate firms after they retire. Law firms don’t merely seek out former prosecutors and judges, but senior administrative officials as well. According to media reports, Finance Minister Yoon Jeung-hyun joined a large law firm after stepping down as the Financial Supervisory Commission Chairman in August 2007 on an annual payroll of 600 million won. Former Vice Knowledge Economy Minister Lee Jae-hoon also served as an advisor to a legal firm for 15 months receiving 500 million won a year after he left office.

Law firms have the most obvious motive to entice senior government officials, and expectations of what they can achieve explain the hefty financial rewards they are offered.

In the United States, lobbying activities are mainly targeted at congressmen. In a country with a sharp separation of the three branches of government - executive, legislative, and judicial - lawmaking is entirely in the hands of the Congress.

But in our country, the administration is in charge of coming up with key policies and the legislature more or less rubber-stamps them through. In those circumstances, senior government officials become the primary targets of interest groups.

In our society, which values relationships and respect for seniors, government officials cannot easily shoo away their predecessors or former bosses when they come asking for favors representing a corporation or law firm. They may also be laying the foundation of their own post-retirement careers when they agree to help.

Susceptibility to old friends and colleagues has long been rife in the judiciary. Senior public servants are recruited and paid generously for their “consulting” services by corporate and legal firms because of such a culture in public service. Lobbying in Korea takes place in this form.

An interest group of security guards that courted and paid the indicted legislators didn’t have such high-level connections. Unlike large law firms, small interest groups cannot easily approach key policymakers and advocate their position. The legislators violated the law that prohibits politicians from receiving large sums of money from interest groups. But they are the only ones these weaker and smaller organizations can turn to for help in their cause.

President Lee Myung-bak repeatedly talks of creating a fair society. But a fair society is one in which access to the policy-making process is open to everyone equally, regardless of their financial and social power. We need an entirely new viewpoint on lobbying.

Every investigation into political funding seeks to uncover the motive and rewards behind illegal fundraising. But frankly, who would pay someone a large sum of money without expecting something in exchange?

The investigation should focus on who and where the money went, instead of “why.” Money-free politics would be ideal. But in the real political world that is not possible.

It may be the cost of sustaining a democracy. If we cannot avoid it, we best make it transparent. The law on political funds should be revised so that all interest groups can have their fair say in legislative procedures.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Kang Won-taek
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