‘Wardrobe-gate’ isn’t over by any means
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
One of the hottest controversies these days involves First Lady Kim Jung-sook’s wardrobe. Since President Moon Jae-in took office, Kim wore expensive clothes, handbags and jewelry when making public appearances, causing reasonable skepticism that she must have spent Blue House money on her outfits. According to Internet users’ analysis of media photos, she wore 170 different articles of clothing and 200 different handbags and pieces of jewelry.
Public demand grew over how she financed her fancy wardrobe. The Korea Taxpayers Association in 2018 filed an information disclosure request to the Blue House to clarify if the special activities budget of the presidential office was spent on her clothing. The Blue House refused to disclose the information, calling it a “sensitive national security issue.” The association, then, filed a lawsuit and won. Yet the Blue House appealed the ruling, fueling controversy.
Some people expressed concerns that the decision by the presidential office will end up burying the truth behind Kim’s wardrobe. They say that if the information is designated as presidential records after Moon’s term ends on May 9, it will be kept secret for up to 15 years. Information regarding the president’s privacy can be kept secret for up to 30 years. As there is no possibility that an appeals court will rule on the case before the deadline, the truth about Kim’s wardrobe will be concealed for years, they said.
Is this really true? Actually, there are ways to get the information. First, presidential records are kept secret, but there are exceptions. If more than two thirds of the National Assembly’s members agree — or if the head of the high court in the jurisdiction believes that the record is significant evidence related to a criminal case and issues a warrant — the records can be submitted.
As of now, there is little possibility that the legislature will take action to make the information public. But a court warrant is a different story. If there are suspicions that Kim’s wardrobe was financed in an illegitimate way, a criminal investigation can start after getting the information from the presidential office.
Second, an administrative suit can be filed against the Blue House if it decides to designate the data as presidential records. The Official Information Disclosure Act and the Act on the Management of Presidential Archives both prohibit disclosure of records that may threaten national security. But it is nonsense to claim that records about Kim’s wardrobe can threaten national security. Therefore, the information cannot be designated as presidential records.
Some say that the judiciary, which respects the separation of powers, will likely accept the Blue House’s decision. That could be true, but a district court that handled the lawsuit already denied the Blue House’s argument that disclosing information about Kim’s wardrobe is a threat to national security. This unprecedented ruling hints at the possibility of the Blue House losing a court battle over the legitimacy of designating the information as presidential records.
The district court’s ruling is meaningful because it placed importance on the people’s right to know. In 1971, the New York Times published a top-secret history of the Vietnam War called the Pentagon Papers. The Defense Department filed a lawsuit to block the newspaper from making additional reports, but the judiciary sided with the newspaper.
It is a principle of democracy that nothing can restrict freedom of information unless it creates a clear and present danger. So it does not make sense that information about Kim’s wardrobe is withheld for national security reasons.
Lastly, an administrative injunction can be filed to stop the Blue House from designating the information as presidential records. An administrative injunction, just like an injunction in a civil suit, can be sought when there is an urgent need to suspend a government decision if it can bring about irrecoverable damage. (Also, there needs to be a possibility of winning the appeals lawsuit.) As the ongoing lawsuit meets both requirements, the taxpayers association can argue to the appeals court for the legal benefit of seeking an injunction.
The late lawyer Cho Young-rae, a respected human rights activist, once said, “You cannot jail the truth in a prison cell forever.”