Under pressure from a number of civic groups, the National Assembly has decided to completely abolish the “special activities” expenses. Ha Seung Soo, the co-CEO of Segeum Doduk Jabara (Sedojab), a citizen group that monitors budget spending (its name means “Catch the Tax Thieves”), is disclosing items of the National Assembly budget, one by one, including special activities expenses.
Sedojab is now planning on disclosing the details of the National Assembly’s budget for legislation and policy development (hereafter “policy development expenses”) which comes to about KRW 8.6 billion (USD 7.7 million) every year. The policy development budget has been controversial ever since its inception in 2005. Many view this budget as “pocket money” for members of the National Assembly, and there has been strong public demand for the Assembly to disclose details. However, the National Assembly has refused to do so except for one occasion in 2011. Last September, Ha filed an information disclosure lawsuit to induce a full disclosure of the policy development expenses. The details to be disclosed are the expenses from June 2016 to May 2017, used by the the members of the 20th National Assembly in the first year of their term.
On August 29, we met with Ha at the National Assembly. He had browsed through the 20,000 pages of evidence on policy development expenses.
It’s the budget that is allotted to National Assembly members in order from them to enact laws and develop policies. It’s known to be used for paying for small-scale labor services related to policies, holding meetings and discussions with experts, and compiling policy materials. It was first created in 2005, and was at first around KRW 10 billion per year but is now only about KRW 8.6 billion. The problem is that materials that prove that the budget is actually being used to enact laws and develop policies should be disclosed, but they haven’t been. After filing a lawsuit against the National Assembly, we’ve finally gained access to a year’s worth of evidence, which is a total of over 20,000 pages. So I’ve looked through it first, and I’ll receive copies of related materials.
First, about KRW 1.9 billion of 8.6 billion was classified as “special activities expenses” or “specific task expenses”, and these are allotted to all 300 members of the National Assembly, who each receive KRW 480,000 (USD 430) every month. Since the National Assembly members aren’t required to account for how they use those expenses, they’re just extra monthly wages. And in total, each National Assembly member received an additional KRW 5.76 million a year. Previously released details of the special activities expenses between 2011 and 2013 revealed that special activities expenses were paid to National Assembly members in the name of policy development expenses on a monthly basis. From the newly disclosed documents, we confirmed that this practice has continued in 2016 and 2017.
When you subtract KRW 1.9 billion from the total budget, there’s about 6.7 billion left. Some of that money was being used to pay for small-scale policy research. We haven’t calculated the total amount yet, but there were about 270 instances that were marked as small-scale policy research expenses. Amounts of up to KRW 5 million are paid to experts who are commissioned to carry out policy research projects, and they are all performed under private contracts.
We need to check to make sure that all of these expenses were used properly, but a number of research paper titles made me wonder if the projects were something National Assembly members needed to pay people to study. For instance, several National Assembly members commissioned research regarding revisions to the Korean Constitution in regard to power structures. But this is a common topic, and both the special National Assembly committee on constitutional amendment and top constitutional scholars in the advisory committee directly under the chair of the National Assembly have already put out a lot of reports on the matter. And some of the researchers or organizations that carried out these projects seemed dubious as well, so we need to look deeper into the matter.
Earlier this year, with Newstapa, I conducted exhaustive research on the commissioned policy research reports that are available at the National Assembly Library and confirmed that a considerable number of the reports were plagiarisms. At the time, we only examined the reports that have been disclosed, but this time I can check the reports, table of contents, and the people who wrote up the report. So I plan to look through them and find out whether those were topics that were worth spending people’s tax money on.
The National Assembly tried as much as possible to stop the disclosure of these small-scale commissioned policy research projects. They actually appealed the decision and continued to argue in the trial that they cannot disclose the names of the people who took on the commissioned policy research projects.
They argued that no one would take on the research projects requested by National Assembly members if the court allowed their names to be disclosed. It didn’t make any sense, and even the judge asked, “If the results of the research that have been paid for by people’s taxes are reflected in policies, isn’t that a good thing for the researchers?”
Another problem is that the National Assembly members did not disclose all of the reports that they have received since paying researchers to conduct research. They should disclose them because they conducted the research with the country’s money.
I will have to get all of the reports and conduct a thorough analysis. But, there are reports that seem problematic just from their titles and tables of contents. Sometimes National Assembly members wrote down “commissioned policy research project” but actually used the money to conduct a public poll within their district. I don’t know if National Assembly members will argue that even public polling counts as research necessary for policy development, but I don’t think that’s how the country would see it. It might seem as though the members took the money that people paid to pass and enact laws and used it to figure what what they should do to win the next election. There were several of those instances.
There were many discussions, seminars, and forums. There is a particularly huge amount of receipts, and I hope to separate the ones that seem significant and analyze them.
In addition to that, the expenses for publishing policy materials were also included in the policy development fee. Those expenses refer to the money used to create reference books that National Assembly members circulate when they propose policies. Some of the details, such as an amount of KRW 20 million used for one policy book, seem suspicious. And in terms of time period, National Assembly members seem to spend a lot of the money at the end of the year.
We need to analyze the materials more, but I have gotten the sense that the policy development expenses were just another type of pocket money for the National Assembly members, just as the special activities expenses have been. I also got the feeling that the National Assembly was very corrupt. The National Assembly uses a lot of budget, but it’s virtually a blindspot in terms of oversight. The Board of Audit and Investigation can’t properly monitor it because the board has to be on the good side of the National Assembly. Since that’s the case, only civil society can monitor the National Assembly. For that to happen, the National Assembly needs to disclose a lot of information, but that’s not the case, so the problems get worse. I believe the National Assembly needs to reform itself, perhaps at the level of dissolution.