South Korea has a very special group of public officials. They often pass the time by squabbling about things related solely to their own interests, while ignoring what they are supposed to do. They are quick to raise their own pay and, whenever possible, go on overseas trips. And they get paid handsomely -- all through taxpayer money -- without even working for weeks.
This very special and unreasonably privileged group is made up of the 300 lawmakers in the National Assembly. Instead of working hard on the growing backlog of pending legislation, they idled away more than seven weeks wrangling over how to share parliamentary chairmanships before restarting long-stalled National Assembly sessions.
The first half of the National Assembly sessions closed on May 30. After wasting 53 days, the ruling and opposition parties finally reached an agreement on sharing the parliamentary chairmanship formations Friday.
The news might come off as a positive development for those who had long wanted lawmakers to start working for the nation. However, what the rival parties actually agreed to, after much bickering, lacks any substance that would benefit citizens.
The gist of the agreement between the ruling People Power Party and the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea is fairly simple. The ruling party will take the chair posts for seven parliamentary committees, while the main opposition party will take the chair posts for 11 parliamentary committees. The ruling and opposition parties will take turns taking the chair posts for two much-disputed committees -- the Science, ICT, Broadcasting and Communications Committee and the Pubic Administration and Security Committee -- with both getting the position for one year each before switching.
Just coming up with an agreement for which party should take how many chair posts, lawmakers from both parties broke one deadline after another. It is no wonder then that lawmakers are now being widely criticized for their belated agreement, which has dragged back the National Assembly’s entire schedule.
During the self-imposed break, or paid holidays in the eyes of many taxpayers, nearly 60 lawmakers went on overseas business trips in the past two months. Except for a couple of official trips, the majority of such excursions reportedly had nothing to do with real legislative “business,” initiating a wave of critical responses from media outlets.
Particularly disappointing is that each lawmaker has gotten away with receiving a monthly pay of 12,850,000 won ($9,818), despite working for just one day during the stalemate period. The official annual pay for a lawmaker is about 154 million won, which is among the top-tier pay grades for Korean workers and far higher than what lawmakers in other comparable countries receive relative to average national income. In total, around 750 million won is paid to each lawmaker every year in salary and costs for running an office, including as many as eight aides -- all at the taxpayers’ expense.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Japanese lawmakers voluntarily slashed their salaries by 20 percent to lessen their burden on the public. Korean lawmakers, in contrast, have continued to raise their own pay since 2018.
There was at least one lawmaker who recognized the folly of lawmakers’ shameful conduct. On Thursday, when the stalemate was still unresolved, Rep. Cho Eun-hee said, “I feel ashamed,” and expressed her wish to return the monthly payment she received.
It is not the first time Korean voters have witnessed such incredulously irresponsible behavior from lawmakers. On social media, some users suggest that the country should install a no-work-no-pay rule for lawmakers.
Korean lawmakers are given too many exceptional privileges, overgenerous compensation and outsized political power once they get elected. This is why so many greedy lawmaker wannabes rush to fight tooth and nail to get a seat in the National Assembly. And even after being elected, they continue to wrangle over their self-interests.
It is hoped that lawmakers ponder their official role and do some soul-searching about what they have done -- or not done at all -- at a time when people are suffering from high economic inflation and the pandemic’s resurgence.
By Korea Herald (email@example.com