Publishing ceremonies push political influence

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Publishing ceremonies push political influence

With regional elections only half a year away, political hopefuls are entering full campaign mode.

And the push has already begun, with lawmakers across the country and those with political aspirations hosting book publishing ceremonies to mark the completion of their biographies.

These parties - often grand events - are used to raise political funds and exert influence, critics and political watchers acknowledge. And because these ceremonies are considered private events, there is no maximum ceiling for how much money officials can accept.

Under the political fund-raising law, which was revised in 2004, lawmakers can only receive a maximum of 150 million won ($141,730) through fund-raising events.

Because they aren’t covered under the law, publishing ceremony hosts are legally entitled to the money raised from book sales at the event. They also aren’t required to report the details to the authorities. Likewise, there is generally no set price for the book.

Often, the biographies are nothing more than self-promotion, written with the help of ghostwriters - who receive between 10 million won and 30 million won for each book.

“I would say about half of those books are written by someone else,” said Lee, a former aide to multiple government heads who asked to only be identified by his surname. “The price tag for hiring a ghostwriter jumps in seasons of high demand like this one.”

Many critics claim these events have the potential to affect legislation, as well as election results and business practices.

Those invited to such events, many of whom are businessmen, customarily send envelopes full of cash in the form of a “donation.” This can amount to as much as 200,000 won per event.

Local entrepreneurs say they have no choice but to attend with cash in hand. Not doing so could have negative repercussions on future business as local government heads hold considerable sway in the private business sector.

Such a phenomenon, inevitably burdensome for business owners, is universal across Korea with the regional elections coming up.

One businessman, a 43-year-old CEO at a midsize company in Incheon, attended two publication ceremonies last month: One for incumbent Incheon Mayor Song Young-gil, of the Democratic Party, and the other for former Mayor Ahn Sang-soo of the Saenuri Party.

“I donated 200,000 won ($189) for each event and received two books [in return],” said the man, who asked only to be identified as Kim. “Local entrepreneurs have no choice but to go to such events [ahead of the elections]; we have to forge good relationship local government heads.

Kim said he has another publication ceremony to go to for a member of the National Assembly, who is rumored to be preparing his bid for Incheon mayorship.

Joo Seong-young, a former Saenuri lawmaker rumored to be preparing for a run for Daegu mayor; Min Byeong-heu, a Gangwon Provincial Office of Education chief now seeking a second-term; An Hee-jung, South Chuncheong governor now bidding for a re-election; and Park Sang-soo, Speaker of the Gangwon Assembly rumored to be preparing for Gangwon’s Samcheok mayorship, are among those who have published books in the past month and hosted publication ceremonies.

“Over the last month, I received more than 10 invitations for publication parties,” said a businessman who runs a construction firm in Daejeon. “Now it has become financially burdensome to go to every event I am invited to, especially considering possible fallout should I decline.”

Political observers have called for an overhaul of the national election law to rein in such events, which often come at the expense of businessmen.

“A majority of those books [published by election runners] do not even appear at bookstores and are a one-time use for that publication ceremony,” said Song Jae-bong, director of the North Chungcheong NGO Center. “We need to change the election law to require election hopefuls to disclose the amount of donations received at publication events and the names of those donors.”


BY SHIN JIN-HO, CHOI MO-RAN [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr ]

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