South Korea’s National Assembly vetoed the appointment of the nation’s first female prime minister Wednesday after two days of tough questioning from lawmakers. The decision was variously presented as a triumph for sexism in a legislature where 94 percent of the seats are held by men; an embarrassment for lame duck President Kim Dae-jung, who nominated academic Chang Sang to the government’s No. 2 spot; or a sneaky ploy to remind the electorate of the ethical shortcomings of Kim’s arch-rival, presidential hopeful Lee Hoi-chang.
According to the International Herald Tribune, during the hearings Chang was “was grilled on why she bought and sold expensive apartments, why her American-born son had chosen U.S. rather than Korean citizenship, and why her résumé stated that she had a doctorate from Princeton University when actually she got it from the Princeton Theological Seminary.” Chang answered that her real estate dealings simply reflected her search for a place to live, that her son would become a Korean citizen, and that the résumé padding was a translation error. Nevertheless, her responses to the accusations of impropriety and lack of patriotism failed to convince the assembly, which voted 144-100 against confirmation. Korean parliamentarians are particularly sensitive to accusations of sleaze after several recent scandals: Two of President Kim’s sons are currently awaiting trial on charges of influence-peddling and corruption.
Although a spokesman for the Korea Women’s Associations United complained to the Korea Herald that Chang had been scapegoated and questioned about personal rather than political matters, the paper’s editorial praised the legislature: “As her sympathizers note, she may not be any more corrupt and dishonest than most male leaders of our society. Nevertheless, a parliamentary confirmation hearing for a high-level public servant must not end up as an occasion to legitimize the wrongdoings, whether legal or moral, that are widely committed by members of the privileged class.”
The Korea Times applauded the National Assembly for providing a “valuable lesson on the morality required of leading figures” in Korean society. It said, “Chang appeared qualified for the post in terms of her courage, decisiveness, administrative ability and firm ideology. But she failed to diffuse allegations regarding her ethical standards, which for holders of public office should be more important than mere administrative ability.” However, some commentators suggested Chang had been a sacrificial lamb, serving to focus the spotlight on ethics and morality to scupper Kim’s longtime rival Lee Hoi-chang, who will be the Grand National Party’s candidate in the Dec. 19 presidential election. The Korea Times pointed out that Lee’s alleged ethical flaws are very similar to the accusations against Chang and that she was used to launch an attack on Lee:
[L]ike Chang, the GNP presidential candidate is suspected to have been involved in real estate speculation and that his granddaughter acquired U.S. citizenship as her parents intentionally toured the United States around the time of her birth. In addition, the MDP claimed that Lee’s two sons dodged mandatory military service and his close aides conspired with conscription officers to cover up the draft dodging.