On July 4, the Special Committee on Political Reform of the Saenuri Party announced its proposal to increase the number of proportional representatives in the National Assembly to 100 from its current number, 54. As the proposal keeps the same total number, 300, of seats in the National Assembly as it is now, this would change the ratio of proportional representatives to district representatives to 1:2.
This is not a reform. This is a regress that would push Korean politics back 50 years. In 1972, a constitutional amendment was passed to adopt a system similar to proportional representation where one-third of the members of the National Assembly were appointed. This attempt failed after a few years due to all kinds of corruption scandals.
In almost all cases, once someone is appointed by a party as a proportional representative, he wants to have his own district for the next term. This leads to a political theater such as fawning on the party leadership, making harsh remarks against the other parties without hesitation, and getting into a tussle with other members only in front of a TV camera.
The original purpose of introducing the proportional representation system was to invite intellectuals with professional expertise to national issues. Now, after half a century, Korea has become an economic power full of highly-educated people: 85 percent of the people have college degrees, and the number of people with doctorate degrees is the highest in the world. It is no longer a compelling reason for proportional representation that the National Assembly needs members with expertise.
Currently, there are hundreds of elite staff members and aides with expertise in various fields in the National Assembly. Furthermore, there are many research institutions, which have expert researchers several times more than similar institutions in the U.S., around the National Assembly building. Does the National Assembly still need members with expertise in certain area?
The committee’s reason for increasing the ratio of proportional representatives in the National Assembly is to prevent too much influence from local powers in the districts and excessive involvement in the matters of private interest. This is an insult to members of the National Assembly who represent their districts. I wonder why the committee did not go further to argue instead that parties appointing all 300 seats in the National Assembly would save the cost of election so much.
The committee also claimed that at least half of the proportional representatives should be women. Then, why don’t we include other groups of people that receive unequal treatment from society, including people with disabilities, defectors from North Korea, and people from multicultural families?
Currently, one-sixth of the members of the National Assembly, 54 out of 300, are appointed through the proportional representation system. In fact, I have never heard of a proportional representation in the U.S. The reason is that it is unthinkable in the U.S. for a party to appoint members of Congress, the country’s highest legislative institution. Thus I have argued for a long time that Korea should end its proportional representation system.
There was no end to the scandals around proportional representation until not so long ago. Rumors said that one had to pay a certain amount of money to a party in order to become a proportional representative of the party. I know that there were even some people who were sent to prison for such a crime. How could they sell National Assembly seats for money? This is why the proportional representation system is criticized for corrupting democracy.
I wonder what the proportional representatives, who do not have districts, do on a weekend. I wonder if they are sorry for those who head to their districts as often as possible to take care of the people who elected them. It is the same during an election. Proportional representatives would look like free riders to their colleagues who make concerted efforts in their campaigns, shaking hands with people in traditional flea markets early in the morning and giving speeches on the street under the scorching sun.
Most of the proportional representatives are appointed without getting their hands dirty. They just run around with fancy resumes to find their alumni or regional connections in a party. I heard that one has to be a big shot with serious political guile in order to be ranked in the top 10 on the list of proportional representative candidates of a party.
The Capitol Hill is regarded in the U.S as a sacred place. The reason is that only those who are elected by the people can enter Congress, the highest legislative institution of the country. Members of Congress are representatives. A representative is a person who is elected by the residents of a district, who are busy making a living, to represent their rights.
People elect a representative not because the person had a great education and a great career but because they think the person would work hard for the district and be able to understand and represent them. That is why the members of Congress are elected through the tests and difficult processes of election.
Each of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives speak for the interest of his or her district, works for the development of the district, and believes that the sum of such effort amounts to representing and working for the interest and the development of the whole country.
The criteria based on social issues, like the one that at least half of the proportional representatives should be women, should not be applied to the election of a member of the National Assembly. In a true democracy, the election of a member of a congress should be left to the voters of a district so that they can pick whoever they want. I hope that the voting right, one of the most sacred rights of the people, will not be diluted.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Kim Chang Joon U.S.-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website at http://www.jayckim.com.