Privileges of lawmakers
Legislators should no longer be immune from arrest
The governing Grand National Party is to declare that its lawmakers will give up their non-arrest privilege. But this admirable avowal is not legally binding. Not all lawmakers are likely to toe the party line. It is not bipartisan as the opposition parties have yet to follow suit.
The governing party will swear neither to veto a motion for the arrest of lawbreaking legislators nor to pass a motion for their release. This is to relinquish their privilege guaranteed in the Constitution.
The Constitution enshrined the code of immunity from arrest to guarantee the autonomy of lawmakers during an authoritarian era. However, the system has been abused to protect corrupt lawmakers from investigation.
Both the governing and opposition parties have sometimes extended a parliamentary session to frustrate the arrest of their peers. They even convened an extraordinary session just for the release of lawmakers caught red-handed.
Since 2000, the National Assembly has vetoed 18 of 19 motions the prosecution submitted for the arrest of legislators. Rep. Kang Sung-jong of the opposition Democratic Party was the only exception for the misappropriation of funds from his school foundation last year.
The privilege of immunity for speeches made at the National Assembly should also no longer be abused for groundless accusations and besmearing of political foes. In France, a lawmaker risks being reprimanded when defaming or intimidating the president, the speaker of the parliament and the Cabinet members. German lawmakers can lose their seats if speeches made at parliament defame others.
Korea also needs a rule so that lawmakers cannot exploit the prerogatives of the exemption from criminal and civil litigation for remarks made inside the National Assembly.
Public cynicism over legislative violence has reached a high. The National Assembly gained global notoriety in 2004 when open physical violence took place during impeachment proceedings for then President Roh Moo-hyun. Periodic conflagrations grabbed the world's attention. In 2009, Assembly members mobilized sledgehammers and fire extinguishers.
Rep. Kim Sun-dong of the Democratic Labor Party even detonated a teargas canister during the National Assembly voting in November for the passage of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Images of the melee were broadcast around the world.
Lawmakers enjoy 200 privileges, including free tickets for trains, airplanes and ferries. Retired lawmakers can receive a 1.2 million won monthly pension from the age of 65 even though they did not subscribe to a fund. Those paying into a pension receive the same amount only when they pay 300,000 won per month for 30 years.
Despite the privileges, the National Assembly has failed to pass the New Year budget within the legal deadline of Dec. 2 for the past nine years.
The GNP should come up with credible action plans so that their declaration is not just for show. Legislators must abide by the universal principle that all men and women are equal before the law.