Breaking the Contract with the Republic of Korea

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“Politicians are all the same. They make a bunch of promises before the election, but once elected they forget all about them.” This was a fairly recurrent comment I heard on the day of the presidential election this year while interviewing people on the street.

Last year, some South Korean politicians, or “those damned liars,” as many prefer to call them, tried to repudiate their notoriety with an ingenious approach.

Before the 2016 general election last April, 56 lawmakers in the conservative Saenuri Party (now re-named as Liberty Korea) ran a full-page advertisement in several South Korean daily newspapers, including Joongang Ilbo and Hankyoreh.

Pledging five major reforms encompassing labor, child care and social welfare, they labeled their promises a “contract with the Republic of Korea,” pledging to carry them all out by May 31, 2017. If not, they vowed firmly, they would donate their yearly salaries to the state.

“Contract with the Republic of Korea.” (Source: Liberty Korea Party)

“Please hold onto this ad for the whole year,” the ad stated, showing a signed contract demonstrating its signatories’ strong dedication to their promises. The “contract” was kindly marked with a dotted line around the borders as a cutting guide for anyone who wanted to keep the ad as suggested.

The politicians’ five pledges were as follows:

  • End the abuse of authority throughout South Korea
  • Reforming labor regulations to make a country for innovators, not inheritors
  • Housing and financial independence for young people
  • “4050 Free Semester System” to help those in their 40s and 50s start new careers
  • A “Mother Center” to help women to balance work and childcare “from pregnancy to school admission”

Almost a year has passed since the contract was signed. Now, only two days remain until the deadline — but how many promises have the lawmakers kept?

Long story short: none of them really. 

The party did propose the Basic Youth Bill, which pertains to one of their five pledges. The bill, which has not been passed yet, elucidated a support system for the younger generation suffering from rising youth unemployment.

The rest of the pledges were largely left untackled.

In their defense, the party probably didn’t foresee the unrelenting series of misfortunes awaiting it after the ad ran. (And to be fair, the goals were impossibly grand and often vague to begin with.)

Despite theatrically showing its strong will to tackle the issues within a year, the Saenuri Party lost the general election in April 2016: It won only 122 seats, or one less than the main opposition. Of the 56 party members who had signed the contract, only 31 were re-elected. Party leader Kim Moo-sung (who was elected) took responsibility and stepped down.

This dismal election defeat and resulting lack of seats in the National Assembly made it difficult for Saenuri lawmakers to pass the bills they had endorsed.

Then, the Park Geun-hye scandal happened just a few months later. The president was eventually ousted from office and the conservative party disintegrated. By late December, fewer than 100 Saenuri lawmakers still remained in the party. Among them, 25 were part of the 31 contract signatories who got elected in April. The rest of the contractees — including Kim Moo-sung, initiator of the contract campaign — left to join the newly-founded Bareun Party.

(Kim is the guy in the famous video, who pushed his suitcase to his assistant without even looking at him.) 

The annual salary of a South Korean lawmaker is at least 138 million won, or roughly 120,000 U.S. dollars, according to a press release from the National Assembly. This figure, multiplied by 31 (the number of remaining contractees) comes to 4.3 billion won, or 3.8 million dollars.

Sunday newspaper Biz Hankook contacted some of the signatories to see if they were aware of the upcoming deadline. Journalist Kim Tae-hyeon first called the office of Kim Moo-sung, which passed on responsibility to his former party, Liberty Korea Party, and suggested the journalist contact its policy department. The policy department told Kim Tae-hyeon that since the contract had been up to individual party members to sign, it held no responsibility. Finally, Kim called an anonymous assemblyman who had signed in the contract.

Journalist Kim Tae-hyeon is having difficulty finding someone who will take responsibility for the “Contract of Republic of Korea.” (Source: Biz Hankook)

“You should check with the leader or the party at that time,” the lawmaker reportedly murmured. “Usually, [the contract] is made at the party-level. So it’s not up to individual lawmakers.”

Nobody seemed to be taking direct responsibility. 

There are two days left until the contract deadline. It’s not likely any of the original contractees will give up their salaries. If they break the contract they signed voluntarily, who will believe their promises from now on?

 

Cover image: “We’ll wise up.” Remember this apology song from Saenuri lawmakers during the general election in 2016? How their fortunes would change in less than a year…. (Source: YouTube)

Jieun Choi is staff writer at Korea Exposé. She has worked in the art industry and startups in Hong Kong and Australia.