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[Editorial] Unconscientious remodeling

Supreme Court diverts budget without authorization to renovate official residence of chief justice

The Board of Audit and Inspection announced that the National Court Administration, under the supervision of the Supreme Court, diverted about 475 million won ($409,000) of its budget without authorization to remodel the chief justice’s official residence.

The administration included 1.552 billion won for the remodeling project in the 2017 budget of the Supreme Court, but the National Assembly slashed it to 999 million won. Then it appropriated other Supreme Court budget allocations arbitrarily to renovate the residence. Even funds allocated for measures to enhance the impartiality and credibility of trials were diverted. It’s ridiculous.

The National Finance Law prohibits government agencies from using their budgets for unauthorized purposes. If need be, they must obtain authorization from the National Assembly or the Minister of Economy and Finance. But the Supreme Court spent taxpayers’ money unilaterally without following the procedure.

The largest share (780 million won) of the improperly diverted funds were used to replace the bricks on the building’s exterior with luxurious imported limestone. Renovating a banquet hall cost 320 million won. The hall has seldom been used for diplomatic purposes involving foreign guests but was used for meetings of judges and court officials.

The Supreme Court says the budget to remodel the official residence was first drawn up in May 2016 under Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su’s predecessor Yang Sung-tae, but the unauthorized budget diversion and actual construction work occurred under Kim. This is just an excuse to deflect criticism and avoid responsibility.

The state auditor also found as many as 32 cases of unlawful budget spending. The administration paid trial allowances to judges on an overseas training course. Some judges claimed expenses for work-related activities when they were on holiday. Some goods were supplied by ineligible businesses. The judiciary took liberties with taxpayers’ money.

Kim took office as chief justice on Sept. 25, 2017, with a pledge to reform the judicial branch to regain public trust. But he acted differently.

He let his son and daughter-in-law, a judge and a lawyer, move into the official residence after they won a contract to buy an apartment under construction in an expensive district of southern Seoul. They lived together in the residence for about a year and three months, from January 2018 to April 2019.

Kim received public censure amid suspicions that his son and daughter-in-law may have moved in there to live free of charge and save money for their brand-new 1.3 billion won apartment.

Lawmakers demanded an explanation from Kim, who remained silent. He argued indirectly through court officials that it was not illegal for his family to live together in the official residence. His son and daughter-in-law have moved out now, but it is obvious they did so only to dispel criticism.

It was revealed in September that the Supreme Court bought 59 million won worth of new furniture and electronic home appliances to replace existing ones in the official residence. Most of the purchases were made shortly before Kim moved in on Dec. 21, 2017.

His hypocritical behavior was revealed in August 2017 when he was nominated to the post of chief justice. He took a bus from Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, where he worked, to eastern Seoul, and rode the subway to the Supreme Court in southern Seoul to have a face-to-face meeting with then Chief Justice Yang. He won praise for his thrifty lifestyle, but it turned out to be a show. Of the 18 business trips he took as chief of the Chuncheon District Court, this one meeting was reportedly the only time that he did not use an official luxury vehicle.

Few would trust a judiciary that diverts even the funds set aside in its budget to enhance the credibility of trials in order to decorate the chief justice’s official residence.

On the surface, he pretends to be a frugal and reformist chief justice, but his behavior indicates otherwise. He seems to believe he deserves perks and privileges as chief justice to the hilt even if he acts improperly. It is questionable if he feels ashamed.