Koreans are used to encountering candidates for high public posts who have a low level of ethical standards. But what we hear from the ongoing parliamentary confirmation hearings on presidential nominees is truly distressing.
The series of confirmation hearings that started Monday will go until Sept. 19. There are a total of 11 nominees, six for the Constitutional Court, including its president, and five for ministerial posts.
Already, many ethical violations have surfaced, some of them verified and admitted by the candidates themselves. One of the most common misconducts is the registration of false home addresses, which is often used to get children into schools in different areas and to seek gains through illegitimate real estate deals. At least five of the nominees -- three ministerial candidates and two Constitutional Court nominees -- have violated this rule.
The prime target of public criticism is former judge and attorney Lee Eun-ae, a nominee for the Constitutional Court. Her family has violated the home address registration law as many as eight times. Another nominee for the top court, Kim Ki-young, registered false addresses three times.
President Moon Jae-in should not have nominated them for the false registration cases alone. The Cheong Wa Dae guideline, which was revised last November, calls on the president not to nominate those who violated the rule more than twice since July 2005 when parliamentary confirmation hearings were expanded to nominees for Cabinet ministerial posts. Either Cheong Wa Dae is ignoring its own guidelines, or its vetting process has been negligent.
A bigger problem with Lee Eun-ae was that she did not explain why her family faked its home addresses, only saying that she did not know well and there were some private family affairs she could not speak about in public. This is not an attitude to be expected of someone who could sit in the bench of a top court.
Lee is accused of having committed more wrongdoings, including real estate speculation and underreporting of property transactions aimed at evading taxes. President Moon Jae-in should withdraw her nomination or she should give it up voluntarily.
It is needless to say that the ethical bar should be higher for the nominees for the Constitutional Court, which, along with the Supreme Court, must be an unchallenged bastion of the rule of law and justice. Another nominee for the court, Lee Suk-tae, also faces allegations he evaded taxes by underreporting a real estate transaction.
These cases illustrate that the presidential office’s nomination system – especially its background investigation of the candidates – is not working properly, despite the fuss Moon created when he named members of his first Cabinet.
During the presidential campaign, Moon promised that he would not appoint anyone with five types of misconduct to top posts of his administration: draft dodging, tax evasion, real estate and stock speculation, fabrication of home addresses and plagiarism.
Cheong Wa Dae added later two more – drunken driving and sexual misconduct. Instead, the presidential office eased the guideline on falsification of home addresses, which, as the cases of the two court nominees show, is not upheld strictly.
The president’s appointment of candidates with ethical problems aside, the ongoing hearings are also drawing public attention to whether the National Assembly will keep its notorious tradition of giving preferential treatment toward their colleagues nominated for top government posts.
There are two ruling party lawmakers who have to go through confirmation hearings next week -- Rep. Yoo Eun-hye, a nominee for education minister, and Jin Sun-mi, who was tapped for the gender equality and family minister. Yoo has already been the subject of controversy over the use of a fake home address and alleged draft dodging by her son.
Other allegations against Yoo also should not be taken lightly: She is also suspected of having violated conflict of interest rules by renting an office in her electoral district on a suspicious contract and hiring an employee of a company run by her husband as her parliamentary staff. These acts of misconduct are too grave to be ignored for a ministerial candidate.
But if history is any guide, Yoo is likely to pass the hearings and take up the Cabinet post eventually. Since the confirmation hearings were introduced in 2000, not a single lawmaker has failed to pass the parliamentary hearings. It was not because all lawmaker-nominees were clean and superb, but because of the legislators’ unchallenged favoritism.