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Blue House asks NEC to weigh in on Kim’s travails

But minor liberal party joins conservative calls for FSS chief’s sacking
Apr 13,2018
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Kim Ki-sik
The Blue House on Thursday asked the National Election Commission (NEC) to determine whether Kim Ki-sik, the beleaguered head of the Financial Supervisory Service, violated laws during his years as a lawmaker, rejecting the opposition’s calls for Kim’s dismissal.

“The Blue House today sent an inquiry to the National Election Commission in the name of Presidential Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok. It is intended to have the NEC officially look into points of legal controversy surrounding Kim Ki-sik,” said Kim Eui-kyeom, the spokesman.

The inquiry will deal with four main questions Kim is being accused of: Is it legal to go on an overseas trip paid for by an institution a lawmaker oversees? Is it legal to go on such a trip with a secretary or an intern of the lawmaker’s office? Is it legal to do personal sightseeing while on an official trip? Is it legal to disburse political donations or use them as severance pay for aides during the final months of a lawmaker’s term?

“We have sent the inquiry [to the NEC] concluding that we need more objective and fair legal standards when it comes to assessing Kim’s past overseas trips,” said the spokesman.

The inquiry is seen as the presidential office’s clear refusal to bow to pressure from opposition parties and fire the new FSS chief over snowballing allegations about overseas trips in 2014 and 2015 and his burning through political donations in his final months as a parliamentarian.

Instead of succumbing to the pressure, the Blue House took the unusual step of asking the NEC’s advice.

The spokesman said the presidential office looked into cases of overseas trips taken by lawmakers across party lines in the 19th and 20th National Assemblies in which travel expenses were paid for by institutions they were supposed to oversee, as in Kim’s case.

“There are thousands of such institutions overseen by lawmakers. We randomly selected 16 institutions and discovered a total of 167 overseas trips that were paid for by those 167. Of the 167, 65 trips were for [the ruling] Democratic Party lawmakers while 94 were for [the major opposition] Liberty Korea Party lawmakers,” said Spokesman Kim.

Asked whether the Blue House will accept the NEC’s judgement unconditionally, a senior official said it would “review it first before making a decision.”

The Blue House’s move came hours after the liberal Justice Party called on Kim to step down, joining the conservative opposition.

“We have arrived at a conclusion that it would be appropriate for Governor Kim [of the FSS] to resign,” said Choi Suk, the party’s spokesperson, at the National Assembly.

The Justice Party initially welcomed Kim’s appointment to lead the financial watchdog as a determined reformer. But as allegations of improprieties snowballed, the minor liberal party with six lawmakers in the National Assembly expressed doubt that Kim could perform his duty as the scandal continues.

With the Justice Party’s volte-face, the ruling Democratic Party and the Blue House are in a tough spot as public sentiment is turning increasingly sour on Kim. It leaves the Democratic Party, which has 121 lawmakers in the 293-member National Assembly, as the only party still backing Kim.

On Wednesday, local media reported that Kim rushed to spend 370 million won ($345,791) in political donations in his final five months as a lawmaker. It was revealed that Kim, a first-term lawmaker, spent an average of 70 million won a month over the last five months of his term in early 2016 in an apparent effort to burn through all the political contributions he had amassed. Typically, lawmakers return such contributions to their political party or to the state coffers when their terms end without re-election.

The revelation of his fevered spending came after controversy over three overseas trips he took as an opposition lawmaker in 2014 and 2015, all sponsored by financial institutions he was supposed to oversee. At the time, Kim was serving on the national policy committee, which is in charge of overseeing Korea’s financial industry.

Making things more complicated for the presidential office and the ruling party, the Seoul Southern District Prosecutors’ Office has started investigating Kim’s actions after the major opposition Liberty Korea Party and the Bareunmirae Party filed criminal complaints of bribery and abuse of power.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]