Following allegations that Rep. Sohn Hye-won made speculative investments in properties in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, conflict-of-interest scandals concerning lawmakers Jang Je-won and Song Eon-seok have emerged. As the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) leader of the Special Committee on Budget and Accounts at the end of last year, Rep. Jang Je-won emphasized the importance of providing financial support to colleges that were designated by the Ministry of Education as the ones that need to increase their competency. It turned out that the college, whose president was Jang’s brother, was included in the list. Rep. Song Eon-seok of the LKP last year vowed to make the Gimcheon Station in Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang Province, his local district, the “second Daejeon Station.” It was found out that Song and his family owned a four-story building right in front of the Gimcheon Station. There are so many similar cases involving lawmakers.
A declaratory provision that all public servants should not derive personal gains from their official capacity was newly added to the Public Service Ethics Act in 2011. But there are no provisions of penalty. The purpose of the anti-graft act, also known as Kim Young-ran act, was to prevent illegal solicitation and conflict of interest. But the conflict of interest part was omitted during the legislative process in 2015. After that, other lawmakers, such as Ahn Cheol-su, proposed a bill regarding conflict of interest to complete the Kim Young-ran act, but it did not even won approval from the National Assembly Standing Committee.
Rep. Jang refuted the scandal by saying, “My family runs educational institutions, ranging from kindergarten, college, to a four-year university. If I call for expansion of government support for any level of institutions, is that a conflict of interest?” Yes, that is called conflict of interest. Rep. Jang should not have requested government support for universities, at least not financial support for those universities lacking in competency. Even though Rep. Sohn had the good intention of preserving cultural assets, that kind of investments in properties should not have been allowed to a member of the Culture and Tourism Committee. It can be used as an excuse for someone with a bad intention. Resistance made by the lawmakers concerned only shows how Korean lawmakers have a poor understanding of conflict of interest.
A law should be enacted to look into all conflict-of-interest cases involving lawmakers and prevent similar cases from happening again. Talking about conflict-of-interest cases across the National Assembly has the risk of diverting attention from allegations involving Sohn. But we should come up with preventative measures while investigating into whether Sohn got her hands on undisclosed information using her official capacity. Conflict of interest is a deep-rooted evils abused by lawmakers.
Electoral reform is as important as constitutional amendment for the sake of political reform. The reason why electoral reform has hit a snag is because of deep distrust of lawmakers that makes it difficult to increase seats in the National Assembly. People’s distrust of lawmakers often results from conflict-of-interest cases and special favors enjoyed by them. If lawmakers stop asking for preferential treatment and act transparently in conflict-of-interest situations, there will be more room for electoral reform in our society.