A rewarding career?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 November, 2004, 12:00am

Four years ago, Chun Chung-bae visited New York as an aide of the Millennium Democratic Party leader in the National Assembly. He stayed in a luxury room at the glitzy Waldorf Astoria. Recently, he had another chance to visit the US. But this time, Mr Chun, now the assembly leader of the ruling Uri Party, stayed in a tiny room at the Holiday Inn Broadway, where, he says, even the hangers were not up to scratch.

His experience reflects the revolutionary change in South Korean politics. After years of political reforms, it has become much more transparent and clean. Politicians are no longer bribed by businesses, and political parties can no longer stash away huge slush funds.

The result? Politicians have become poorer. National Assembly members can expect to earn the equivalent of about US$7,000 a month; a not insubstantial amount. However, they complain that it is too little to cover all their expenses. Indeed, upmarket restaurants in Yoido, where the National Assembly is located, have suffered a drop in takings, while low-end restaurants are enjoying a boom.

Politicians cannot even say that at least they have their honour; in polls, politics is regarded as one of the least respected professions, mainly because of the numerous scandals in the past. The belief that politicians are always embroiled in factional infighting and are indifferent to the public interest contributes to this perception.

In fact, the previous National Assembly highlighted all these problems. In addition to the saga of the opposition-led impeachment against President Roh Moo-hyun, it was engulfed in many scandals. At one point, more than 10 per cent of members were in jail - mainly for taking bribes. The joke was that parliamentary meetings could take place in prison, not at the assembly.

From this debacle came the sweeping changes. Under the Political Reform Law, legislators cannot accept more than US$85 from an anonymous donor. It also prohibits politicians from spending money to try to influence voters. And during election campaigns, candidates are limited to the number of campaign managers they can hire.

Leading the way has been the new political blood: the so-called 386 generation - those in their 30s, who took part in pro-democracy demonstrations in the 1980s and were born in the 1960s. Many of them served long jail terms for opposing the dictatorial governments of the 1980s. The last thing they want is to end up in jail again. Thus, political leaders like Mr Chun will have to settle for cheap hotels and meals for a long time to come. But their inconvenience and humiliation will be rewarded in the long run - in the form of respect from the people.