Singer and actor Lee Seung-gi has been paid W572 million since 2010 for promoting the lottery for the Ministry of Strategy and Finance (US$1=W1,093). Boy group Super Junior was paid W380 million since March 2010 by the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to promote Korean cuisine around the world.
Over the last four years, 41 out of 62 government agencies that hired entertainers as honorary ambassadors spent hundreds of millions to billions of won in modeling fees and other expenses. The 41 government agencies spent more than W6 billion over that period.
Saenuri Party lawmaker Lee No-keun of the National Assembly's Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs Committee on Wednesday unveiled records of government spending on employing celebrities as so-called honorary ambassadors.
The records show that six other entertainers were paid more than W300 million each in taxpayers' money, including singer Kim Jang-hoon (W375 million from the Ministry of Strategy and Finance and Statistics Korea), and girl band Wonder Girls (W372 million from the Agriculture Ministry).
Thirteen including actors Cho Jae-hyun and Lee Jung-kil, singer Rain, TV host Kang Ho-dong and footballer Park Ji-sung made more than W100 million.
Kang made the most money compared to the time he spent on his "mission," earning W198 million for six months promoting milk consumption for the Agriculture Ministry. In contrast, figure skating star Kim Yu-na has made no money from the Agriculture Ministry for promoting Korean cuisine since 2010.
The Agriculture Ministry spent the most money on honorary ambassadors. Nine out of the 19 celebrities who made more than W100 million worked for the ministry, and over the last four years it hired no fewer than 21 honorary ambassadors for a total of W2.12 billion.
The Strategy and Finance Ministry and Statistics Korea were also big spenders. The Finance Ministry, which oversees the national budget, spent W1.01 billion hiring Lee Seung-gi, Park Bo-young and Kim Jang-hoon to promote lottery sales, whose proceeds are used to fund welfare projects. Statistics Korea spent W430 million to hire actors Ji Jin-hee and Han Hyo-joo and singer Kim Jang-hoon to drum up participation in the census.
The three ministries together accounted for 59 percent of the money public institutions spent on celebrities. Meanwhile, 21 government agencies were able to persuade celebrities to work for free.
"When celebrities work as honorary ambassadors, the public often think they’re doing it for free," Lee said. "But when some government agencies spend hundreds of millions of won in taxpayers' money hiring entertainers and giving them exposure, we've got a problem."
But one staffer with a PR agency said for the stars it is a job like any other, and in most cases they ask for less than half the fee they would be getting from the private sector. One entertainment industry insider said some entertainers work as honorary ambassadors for free, but many get paid if their ads are featured on TV or in print.