Time to close official residences

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Time to close official residences

After President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s decision to return the Blue House to the public, consensus is fast building on the need to scrap the public residences for high-ranking officials. The JoongAng Ilbo found that the National Assembly speaker, the Supreme Court chief justice, the head of the Constitutional Court, the head of the Board of Audit and Inspection, the head of the Armed Forces, the defense minister and the foreign minister have official residences. That’s in sharp contrast with other developed countries, which only offer official residences to head-of-state-level leaders. Budget and operation systems are not transparent, either.

Such an outdated practice has long been criticized as a sheer waste of money. Our former and current foreign ministers spent 950 million won ($778,689) and 320 million won, respectively, in renovating their residences. Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su spent 160 million won to remodel his residence shortly after taking office in 2017. His son’s family even lived in his father’s official residence for 15 months for free until they moved into an expensive apartment in Gangnam.

Official residences are basically operated by the occupants themselves, offering a fertile ground for moral lapses. The residences have cooks and security guards, but the details are kept secret. President Moon Jae-in has not yet disclosed any information on maintenance costs for the Blue House after his daughter and her family lived there for over a year after their return from Thailand.

Provinces are no exception. As local government heads and school superintendents are provided with generous official residences, controversy often arises over waste from renovation or remodeling. The shameful practice, which began from the days when the president appointed heads of local governments, continues 27 years after local autonomy was introduced.

In the United States, only the president and vice president use official residences, while in Japan, only the prime minister and chief justices can afford it. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon did not live in an official residence, but no problem was found in running the city government.

Some can argue the need for official residences for certain events, but such problems can be solved by operating guest houses like the Blair House in Washington. After the president-elect’s dramatic decision to relocate his presidential office to the Ministry of National Defense building in Yongsan, we must only allow the president and prime minister to use official residence after steadily reducing the number of such residences. Above all, a law must prohibit their occupants from using them for personal purposes.
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