Remnants of outgoing Assembly
Deputy Managing Editor
In September 1966, the throwing of feces toward Cabinet ministers by Rep. Kim Du-han stunned the nation. Outspoken Kim hurled the excrement in a plastic container at the ministers to protest the smuggling of saccharin, which is much cheaper than sugar, by a fertilizer manufacturer affiliated with Samsung Group. Saccharin is an artificial coffee sweetener 500 times sweeter than sugar. The company was accused of smuggling 55 tons of it from Japan, while pretending to import construction materials from the neighboring country.
Kim threw the feces toward the ministers at an interpellation session. He criticized them for taking sides with the smuggling manufacturer. The lawmaker was stripped of his parliamentary seat for the unprecedented incident and sentenced to prison time.
More than four decades after that incident, Korean lawmakers are still plagued by negative images as they frequently engage in physical clashes in parliament over the passage of disputed bills and use indecent language.
During the 18th National Assembly whose four-year term expires on May 29, people saw some legislators resort to violence. They included Reps. Kang Ki-kab and Moon Hak-jin, both of whom failed to be reelected in the April 11 general elections.
Kang of the Democratic Labor Party, which merged with two other progressive parties before the elections, was accused of grabbing the throats of security guards and destroying property at the office of the National Assembly Secretariat chief, while staging a sit-in with colleagues to block the passage of bills to reform the media industry.
The use of violence in parliament reached a climax when Moon of the main opposition Democratic Party, the predecessor of the Democratic United Party (DUP), used a hammer to break into a conference room in order to thwart the passage of bills to ratify the free trade agreement with the United States. Ruling party legislators retaliated by spraying fire extinguishers. The hammer incident was one of the most shameful chapters in the history of Korean politics.
The two cases exposed the high level of impunity enjoyed by Korean lawmakers in a society based on the rule of law. Kang was fined 3 million won for preventing parliamentary officials from performing their duties by using violence, while Moon was fined 2 million won for brandishing a hammer, both soft penalties.
In addition to those acts, it was deplorable that a lawmaker detonated a tear gas canister in the National Assembly main chamber. Rep. Kim Sun-dong of the DUP set off the tear gas grenade during a floor vote on the free trade deal with the United States to block its ratification. He is awaiting trial.
In light of those ugly incidents, there have been growing calls for measures to prevent physical clashes in parliament. But the ruling and opposition parties have failed to pass relevant bills. The outgoing legislature called off a plenary session Tuesday as none of the parties backed down on their respective stances on the bills’ details.
They differ on the idea of introducing a “fast track” vote. The proposal would make it mandatory for a committee to obtain a consensus of three-fifths or more of its members in order to refer controversial bills to a fast track vote, instead of the current majority rule. The governing Saenuri Party says the plan would nullify the majority rule of democracy in passing bills.
The bills are on the verge of automatically being scrapped as the incumbent legislature’s term draws to a close.
It is also regrettable that the parties have shown few signs of addressing the proposed idea of replacing half of the parliamentary ethics (disciplinary) committee members with outsiders as part of measures to stiffen punishment for lawmakers found involved in violence in the National Assembly.