The scent of jasmineThe Speaker of the National Assembly has two requirements: high ethics and strict political neutrality. The speaker is the head of the legislature, and along with the president and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, he is the head of one of the government branches.
Political neutrality is clearly stated in the National Assembly Act. The speaker cannot have party affiliation and must maintain neutrality.
But lately, the speaker’s neutrality has been challenged. Chung Sye-kyun led the National Assembly into chaos with a biased view twice in one month. Another controversy arose over his private life as his wife’s official vehicle had a VIP parking sticker from a high-end department store.
According to National Assembly bylaws, the spouse of the speaker is assigned an official vehicle, a Genesis EQ900 model that sells for as much as 100 million won ($89,904). The driver is an employee of the National Assembly. A Jasmine Card is the highest level of three VIP cards that Hyundai Department Store offers to customers who make purchases worth 35 million won or more annually. The VIP cardholders enjoy valet parking and an exclusive lounge.
Chung reported 3.4 billion won in assets so there is nothing strange about his wife being a VIP customer. Of course, it could be a political liability as Chung appealed to working-class voters in his election campaigns. Some voters may feel uncomfortable to learn that Chung’s wife was a VIP customer of a high-end department store. Nevertheless, it is up to the voters in his district to decide.
The problem is the pink VIP parking sticker on the official vehicle. Why does the government provide a 100 million-won car to the wife of the National Assembly speaker? The car is meant to help her conveniently handle official businesses. Shopping at a department store as a VIP customer is hardly official. It is understandable that she may visit the department store once in a while in the official vehicle. But the VIP card is exclusively for customers who spend several tens of millions of won. How could the wife of a high-level government official put a VIP sticker on an official vehicle and go shopping? What would the parking staff think when they learn that it is an official vehicle?
What would happen if it was a high-level official of the Park Geun-hye administration? How about the wife of the Prime Minister going shopping in an official vehicle with a VIP sticker? The opposition would harshly criticize the president and the administration, saying an aristocratic administration hurts the feelings of the working-class citizens with such behavior. The Prime Minister would have to issue an apology, repent with tears, and still the criticism wouldn’t stop.
At a parliamentary audit, opposition lawmakers would snarl at the prime minister and call witnesses, the CEO of the department store, the security guards and the driver. They would ask whether the VIP car sticker was issued because the wife really purchased 35 million won-worth of products in a year or was it given as a favor because she is the wife of the prime minister. They would ask if the Kim Young-ran Act was violated, how often she visited the department store in the official vehicle and whether other family members used the official vehicle.
The Minjoo Party and the People’s Party hold a majority in the National Assembly. They passed a resolution to dismiss Agriculture Minister Kim Jae-soo less than 15 days after his appointment. The opposition claimed that lobbying was suspected between him and a landlord and that Kim’s family rented a house for cheaper than the market rate. The landlord was called as a witness. He said he didn’t know Kim.
He explained that the house had a large mortgage and the lease deposit was not so cheap. There didn’t seem to be a favor when Kim got the loan.
At the hearing, a Minjoo Party lawmaker asked why a civil servant lived in a 3,200 square-foot apartment. The opposition should apply just as strict a yardstick to National Assembly Speaker Chung.
Chung and his wife left for an overseas trip without apologizing. Their residence in Hannam-dong is a mansion. It will be filled with the scent of jasmine even when they are away.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 5, Page 31
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.