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Plummeting standards

Apr 13,2019
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Lee Mi-sun, right, a nominee for the Constitutional Court, testifies at her confirmation hearing by the National Assembly on Wednesday. [AP/YONHAP]
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Park Jai-hyun
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Senior officials at the Justice Department and 49 high-rank prosecutors reported an average personal wealth of 2,016,080,000 won ($1.77 million) last year, increasing 68.38 million won from 2017. Justices on the Constitutional Court added around 200 million won in assets to an average 2.2 billion won. Some 166 judges at senior levels on high courts had assets averaging 2,765,630,000 won, gaining 354,620,000 won. Given the average of 1.29 billion won for all 1,873 senior public officials subject to disclosure of assets, members of the judiciary branch are the richest on the public-sector payroll. What makes senior judges and prosecutors richer by five to eight times than the average Korean, whose median wealth is estimated at around 380 million won?

They may have been lucky to come from a rich family or be married into one. They could not have built wealth to over 2 billion won through their annual incomes, which are 100 million won at most. They also could have been fortunate with real estate investments. They would have benefited from the jump in real estate prices after they moved to southern Seoul following the move of the headquarters of the Supreme Court and Supreme Prosecution Office to Seocho District in southern Seoul. Real estate properties took up the bulk of personal assets of many judges and prosecutors.

Still the public has become suspicious of the riches of the judiciary upon learning of some cases where officers of the court built wealth through exclusive access to inside information. Since they investigate the powerful and rich and are familiar with their business skills, some of them have come to use their influence and information from their cases for personal gain. Jin Kyung-joon, a chief prosecutor, was convicted of bribery charges after his assets ballooned to 15.6 billion won in 2016 from 3.9 billion won the previous year through stock gains in gaming company Nexon. Lee Yoo-yeong last year had to withdraw herself from nomination to the Constitutional Court after she was accused of profiteering in stock investment through insider tips from a company she was involved with as a lawyer. Greed can get the better of good sense even among those practicing law.

Lee Mi-sun, the latest nominee for the Constitutional Court, is under similar suspicions. Lee and her lawyer husband Oh Choong-jin together own 4.26 billion won, of which the lion’s share — 3.54 billion won — is in equities. They must have had strong confidence to place their entire cash holdings into stocks. Over four occasions, Lee bought shares related to a certain company involved in a case she had overseen and ruled on.

Her husband Oh, who used to be affiliated to a progressive front within the court currently backed by the Moon Jae-in administration, also holds shares in companies he oversaw as a judge and defended in court as a lawyer. Lee claimed the stock purchases were made on growth prospects for the companies. But circumstantial evidence suggests he could have used inside information to make the stock investments. If the local district court judge had turned down the offer to join the Constitutional Court, she could have saved herself and her husband from a public shaming.

One cannot have everything: money, reputation and title. “A violent wind does not last for a whole morning; a sudden rain does not last for the whole day,” according to the Tao Te Ching, teachings of ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu.

President Moon Jae-in recently lectured on justice and fairness. He vowed to create a society with equal opportunities for all so that ordinary people are satisfied. How can he promise that when he appoints a judge who used her bench position as a secondary job to make extra money?

Is she the kind of person suitable for the highest court, which defends the constitutional rights of the people? What use is the financial authority’s examination of her stock transactions? The prosecution must embark on a thorough investigation into her assets as the gravity of the case is no lighter than the sex scandals involving influential people in past administrations.

There are calls for a comprehensive probe of stock holdings of judges and prosecutors. Moon has vowed to “end the age where the elite has colluded and played foul to keep prerogatives to themselves and brought pain to ordinary people.” But do his aides really sympathize with the sense of betrayal of ordinary people? We are interested to learn the thoughts of Moon’s civil affairs secretary, Cho Kuk, who criticized the former administration for its excesses and power abuse. Or have they also grown immune to their exclusivity?

JoongAng Ilbo, April 12, Page 29