Is anyone out there clean?The first nominee came out of his confirmation hearings with his reputation in tatters. It may take months or even years for Lee Dong-heub - the nominee for chief justice of the Constitutional Court - to recover from the cruel exposure and dissection of his past. All the skeletons and ghosts hidden in his family’s closet tumbled out in broad daylight. He lost all the respect he earned in a long career as a judge overnight.
In the waiting room sits Kim Yong-joon, head of the presidential transition team, hand-picked by President-elect Park Geun-hye as her first prime minister. Similar allegations have come out about his background. A symbol of staunchness and a supposed believer in law and order - he is also known for overcoming polio at a tender age - Kim is quietly respected by law practitioners for his rulings and his convictions as the head of the Constitutional Court. He has been known for simplicity and modesty. Are there skeletons in his closet as well? The show will go smoothly and end happily if he has no surprises to hide. But if he does, the public and media will have a field day.
Should we be enjoying this?
A confirmation hearing can be a time of payback for opposition party members who are still fuming over their somewhat narrow loss in the presidential election. The ruling party will have to expect three or four of its nominees for government offices to become scapegoats to the opposition party’s vengeance. Such a ceremonial defeat would serve as a kind of comfort to something close to half of the population that voted for the losing candidate in the election.
It would be an upset to this part of the audience if a scrupulous choice from the ruling party demonstrates resilience and skillfully escapes or even counterattacks the opposition. Tensions are high on either side of the aisle as both parties have high stakes in the game.
But since the confirmation hearings turned into a stage for political vendettas and face-offs, the public and the media alike have to stop and think about setting some rules. Decency and privacy are one aspect to think about. After the lawmakers and media were done with him, nominee Lee was stigmatized as an unethical judge who embezzled funds, plagiarized research and used his influence to get a job for his daughter and help his son get lengthy breaks during military service. He appeared to be a devoted father, but not very good in home economics: He had no idea how many bank accounts he had under his name.
The portrayal of him and his family in the hearings and news reports might be far from the truth. Whatever Lee tried to say in explaining his past, however, was lost in the hostile atmosphere of the lawmakers determined to dig into his past. During all the hours spent reviewing the candidate, 90 percent of the time was focused on digging up unseemly behavior on a personal level. Lee - weary from the heavy jabs and blows - stammered and kept quiet as he watched his entire legal career ripped into pieces and washed down the drain.
Toward the end, it looked as if saving his name was more important than the title of Constitutional Court chief. The interrogators apologetically said they had not meant to go so far. But with the damage done, Lee could only pick whatever was left of himself and trudge out of the room. The show wasn’t so much intriguing. It was cruel and distasteful.
Next up is Prime Minister nominee Kim Yong-joon. He lived in a house without changing a window sash for 10 years in fear of violating the construction regulations on interiors. But he has two sons who have not served in the military for health reasons that seem suspicious. He purchased real estate for his sons before they were ten, raising suspicions of evading inheritance taxes. Some things he did out of habit or custom in judiciary circles during service at lower courts and the Constitutional Court could be maneuvered to look like misdemeanors and end up tarring the 74-year-old veteran judge as a criminal.
We may have to witness another pitiful spectacle of a revered older person being publicly humiliated as Kim, who wears hearing aids, will have to ask obnoxious questions to be repeated over and over again. An elite individual nominated to head the cabinet of a new administration should be clean. But watching someone in the highest echelon being pulled down into the mud makes every one of us a Peeping Tom.
The confirmation hearings, with their functional role of digging up dirt instead of assessing the qualification of a candidate, have fed the nasty beast in all of us and provided the rare pleasure of watching someone high and mighty being beaten and shaken until he or she falls from grace. How different are the politicians from nasty Internet cowards who maliciously abuse celebrities until they are pushed into a suicidal state?
I suggest changes in the procedures. As in the United States, the confirmation hearings should be administered in two sessions. The session on the private life of the candidate should be conducted behind closed doors. Once he or she passes the first test, the second session should be public and focused on evaluating the nominee’s qualifications for a given government post. Someone virtuous can turn out to be incompetent and people with questionable ethics sometimes prove to be excellent at a job.
Virtue is rare in today’s world. As long as confirmation hearings serve as witch hunts, we won’t be able to find talent for government offices. Fewer will come forward to sacrifice their dignity and their children’s. Let’s face it. The pure are hard to find. Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a sociology professor of the Seoul National University.
by Song Ho-keun