Tax, spend, hide

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Tax, spend, hide

Kim Sun-teak
The author is the president of the Korea Taxpayers Association.

Last month, the Seoul Administrative Court ruled that the presidential office must disclose the details of presidential spending through a special activity budget — including the prices of clothing first lady Kim Jung-sook wore at official events — and prices of lunch boxes offered to workshops hosted by President Moon Jae-in. The court delivered the ruling three years after the Korea Taxpayers Association (KTA) filed a lawsuit against the Blue House in 2019.

Special activity expenditure is budgetary spending for government activities requiring confidentiality. A total 247.1 billion won ($204 million) is allocated to the 17 government offices, excluding the National Intelligence Service (NIS), as well as the National Assembly and Supreme Court. The exceptional spending system seriously impairs the rights of taxpayers as it gives government employees the liberty to spend tax money without any concerns for receipts and tracing.

The permission to exploit tax funds is as big a privilege as exempting priests from taxes during the medieval period. When the Norwegian Prime Minister’s Office was asked what liability the prime minister would face if he or she had not attached receipts to their spending, the office answered the prime minister would have to resign or face impeachment.

If details of budgetary spending are not disclosed, it would be hard to keep watch over corruption of government employees. The non-disclosure provision is like giving government employees a blank check on tax funds. A state cannot be a democracy if the taxpayers are denied access to the government spending of tax revenue.

Transparent disclosure of information becomes the basis for the freedom of the press and speech. Whether it is right or wrong, disclosing how much of the tax funds went to purchasing the wardrobe of the president’s spouse could be a measurement of government credibility.

How much can be spent on the first lady’s wardrobe can be disputed. But what is important is that a country with a system of disclosing necessary information clearly and completely can be trusted by the people. When disputing the disclosed facts, the tendency to believe only what one wants to believe or the wrangling between the rightist and leftist fronts could be eased.

Exploitation of special activity funds is not just a problem of individuals but of a bad system. If cash is handed out without the requirement for receipts, anyone could be tempted to use it for personal expenses.
A collection of first lady Kim Jung-sook’s outfits posted online, March 17.

Leaving the NIS’s special activity fund outside the audit for security reasons also is not normal. France has a special committee in the legislature to examine the confidential budget spending of offices in charge of national security. Sweden has little public employee corruption since it has enacted the world’s first law enabling public access to information and secrets in 1766. The law goes back as far as the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) period.

Sweden’s Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act is eight times longer than its Korean counterpart. It specifically lists exceptional cases of restricted access. Except for the cases categorized as exceptional, all other information must be made available. Government employees have no say.

In Korea, government employees can choose to keep the information confidential on the grounds of “being under investigation, audit, or review.” In short, they could deny public access to necessary information if they want to.

Swedish government employees who receive work phones are even subject to disclose their phone conversation records and work-related emails. If they are subject to disclose information, government employees must disclose every detail about work-related decisions and their grounds. Tax office employees must disclose the amount of penalty tax after audit.

Citing security reasons, the Blue House appealed a court ruling ordering it to disclose the details of special activity spending. The presidential office refused to disclose the details of the prices of the first lady’s wardrobes as she had bought all of them with her own money. If the information goes to the presidential archives after Moon leaves the office, it must stay sealed for minimum 15 years. The law prohibits access to the records in presidential archives even if the case is on trial.

But if the Moon administration is true to the spirit of the candlelight vigil protests that impeached the former president for corruption and elected Moon as president, it must respect the court ruling. It must not find excuses to deny access to the information. The Blue House must set an example by disclosing special activity expenditures so that other government offices can follow suit.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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