[NOTEBOOK]Pride in ethics is a road to ruinIn March 1993, during his first press conference after being sworn in to the office, President Kim Young-sam emphasized that his political funds were clean. The wave of “ethical politics” launched by the chief executive led to the practice of disclosing the assets of top government officials and policies to make financial markets transparent.
The general public, fed up with highly-publicized corruption scandals reaching all the way up the chain of command, overwhelmingly approved. The approval rating of the new president topped 90 percent, according to some polls.
Some political analysts dubbed the phenomenon as the “Joshua syndrome.” Although the credit goes to Moses for emancipating the Israelis from their state of slavery in Egypt, it was Joshua who led them to the promised land. Pundits became wary of a president treading an illusory path by regarding himself as the creator of a morally perfect society.
But as soon as rumors of corrupt cabinet members and presidential associates began to circulate, and when the president’s son was found to have meddled in public matters through his private contacts, President Kim Young-sam’s high-flying pride suddenly turned into an object of jeers and mockery.
President Kim Dae-jung could not escape his predecessor’s bad precedent. Past contributions to the democracy movement became an important benchmark in selecting his advisers. The pride of being morally superior to all previous administrations would not permit any attention to even legitimate criticism. President Kim’s administration dismissed the opposition as elements that had basked in the limelight of military dictatorships.
When the media disclosed corrupt transactions of cabinet members or associates, the officials would denounce the reporting as devious and ill-intentioned. Cries of false accusation or victimization were all too common.
The moral high ground of President Kim’s administration was effectively undercut during his first year in office when campaign funds amounting to tens of billions of won were secretly handed out during parliamentary by-elections.
The administration neglected widespread rumors of corruption. That unwillingness to confront reality led to the indictments and convictions of two sons of the president.
President Roh Moo-hyun’s administration emphasizes compatibility. In the process of selecting his cabinet and advisers, President Roh showed his preference for those on his ideological wavelength, and that wavelength was described as being ethical and reform-minded. Still, while morality can be a virtuous goal of politics, it is not one to be boasted about. Politics is the process of coordinating and melding the differing interests and desires of groups and individuals within society. “Coordinating and melding” should be understood as the process of compromise. Remaining the lone lotus in a pool of filth is never a good idea. A growing number of observers warn that the president’s emphasis on compatibility should not morph into an inclination to select only like-minded associates displaying the same political colors.
Some persons serving the administration and the presidential office will probably retain their immunity from corruption. Moon Jae-in, the senior secretary to the president for civil affairs, Park Joo-hyun, the senior secretary to the president for public participation, and Jeong Chan-yong, the adviser to the president for personnel affairs, are among those that would remain straightforward and plain-speaking before their boss.
But to assume that each and every part of the administration will remain free from corruption and scandals is inconceivable. Numerous interest groups will bombard the officials with sweet enticements and inexhaustible energy.
Draw a line across a blank sheet of paper, and the paper is no longer pristine and white. As soon as an adviser or associate succumbs to temptation, the public will no longer side with the visions of the administration. Hence, boasting or stressing excessively the morality of the administration is potentially dangerous.
What the public expects of President Roh’s administration is not so much a lesson in ethics or ideology, but the provision of wholesome values reflecting the day and age and a vision to lead Korea into the future.
Only when such principles underpin this administration can it become truly legitimate and powerful.
* The writer is political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Du-woo