S. Korea's anti-corruption law causes stir

S. Korea's anti-corruption law causes stir

Calls for changes to the hard-hitting antigraft bill that passed the National Assembly on Tuesday are escalating as journalists, teachers, legal professionals and some lawmakers argue the new restrictions may be unconstitutional, unfair and abusive.

The Assembly, faced with growing criticism for sidestepping any clauses that would directly impact the incumbent lawmakers in their hasty push for the bill, hinted revisions could be unavoidable before the bill goes into effect in 18 months.

"(We) will listen humbly to all voices concerning any inadequate parts and side effects and revise the bill as necessary during the preparation period for the enactment," ruling Saenuri Party floor leader Rep. Yoo Seong-min said Wednesday.

He added that his party would work closely with the government in setting the upper limit of monetary gifts allowed for business purposes.

The so-called Kim Young-ran bill passed in the Assembly on Tuesday with over 90 per cent approving the bill. The law aims to make it illegal for civil servants, journalists and teachers to receive more than 1 million won (S$1240) in cash or gifts, regardless of the occasion.

While public calls for the bill have been fierce, both members of the Saenuri Party and the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy and have expressed worries that the bill could bring side effects, such as by challenging the Constitution.

Questions also linger over the range of people who are subject to the bill, as well as the ambiguity regarding punishments for officials from the civilian sector.

The Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, the driving force behind the bill's enactment, also said review of the bill would continue for smooth enforcement.

"The bill touches on an area that was never regulated before, so a clash of opinions is inevitable … We will sort out the issues concerning the bill during the 1 1/2 years (before implementation)," ACRC head Lee Sung-bo said in a press conference on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, various groups from the legal and education fields voiced vehement opposition.

"I don't understand how the law can apply the same regulations to public officials ― who have to shoulder the responsibility of serving the public ― as the media and private school officials," said Lee Hun, the head of The Lawyers for Citizens.

He pointed out that the ACRC's data submitted to the Assembly fails to present previous cases of press and private school officials being punished by a same law as the public officials.

"The Assembly has committed 'legislative tyranny' by passing a bill that can be interpreted as unconstitutional … As head of state, the president should exercise her veto rights to the bill on the part about the civilian officials," he said.

Critics point out that since the bill originally targeted public officials, the criteria for what is considered illegal solicitation is based on the civil servants' code of conduct. The act does not cite an official standard for civilians.

A local lawyers' group on Wednesday said it will file a constitutional appeal on the anti-graft bill as early as Thursday.

"As a group entrusted with a mission to build a society based on constitutionalism, we cannot condone a law that has unconstitutional elements becoming implemented," the Korean Bar Association said in a press release.

"The bill has arbitrarily selected the subjects for regulation, including the press, and was ambiguous on the concept of 'illegal solicitation.'

This bestows an excessively wide range of discretion upon the prosecutors and the court, and violates the principal of equality and precision."

The Korea Federation of Teacher's Associations also released a statement lambasting the passage of the bill and said it might submit the case to the Constitutional Court.

"Teachers are expressing concerns that they are being treated as potential criminals and that the bill is making the education circles look like a hotbed of corruption," said KTFA spokesperson Kim Dong-seok.

Other concerns relate to possible violations of the nation's criminal code, which absolves families when they hide criminal relatives on the run, or the Constitution as the supreme law outlaws guilt by association.

The Kim Young-ran bill obligates public officials' spouses to report on their husbands or wives if they become aware of any pay-for-favour deals involving their partners.

Named after the bill's initial writer, a former Supreme Court justice and ex-head of the ACRC, the bill will take effect 18 months after President Park Geun-hye's Cabinet approves the bill.

The 1 1/2 year grace period has sparked additional condemnations against politicians, as it prevents the bill from coming into force before next year's parliamentary elections, exempting the lawmakers who voted for the bill from its restrictions and penalties.

NPAD Rep. Choi Min-hee said, "I will not vote for a bill that has the potential to restrict the freedom of the press." Choi was one of the 17 lawmakers who abstained in the Tuesday vote.

Choi was referring to fears that authorities could intimidate reporters to prevent them from writing critical stories about the government by threatening to prosecute journalists who had shared meals, or exchanged customary gifts with friends working in officialdom.

The public, meanwhile, appeared to support the anticorruption bill.

A poll conducted by television broadcaster JTBC and opinion surveyor Realmeter on Wednesday, a few hours before the bill passed, showed 64 per cent of respondents favouring the bill. Only 7.3 per cent said they were against it, while 28 per cent said they were unsure.

The poll was conducted on 500 adults nationwide, and has a 95 per cent confidence level, plus or minus 4.4 per cent. About 6.5 per cent of those asked by an automated response system answered the survey.

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