[OUTLOOK]Show some respect for democracySnug in his ivory tower, an American academic wrote with admiration of Korea’s democracy struggle:
“Democracy is not a gift or a political regime that one is born with, but something that must be fought for every inch of the way.”
Well, yes. But one must also know when to stop fighting for democracy and learn to live with democracy. Korea is full of people who are fighting Roh Moo-hyun as if he were Chun Doo Hwan.
Democracy means accepting the outcome of elections. We may not like what today’s government is doing, but we’ll get a chance next time to elect a better government. In the meantime we accept the government’s right to rule, and we try to influence its policies by argument and persuasion.
Not in Korea. Here we try to sabotage the government, because it has proved its illegitimacy by trying to do something I personally don’t favor.
So poor, democratically elected President Roh is blocked by the democracy activists of 2003 from attending a memorial to the democracy activists of 1980. So the teachers union will go on strike if the Education Ministry doesn’t back down from its database plan, and if it does back down the school administrators will boycott.
Meanwhile, to judge from the headlines, the bribes and deals and insider shenanigans continue because the men in suits don’t respect democracy either and have their own covert ways of getting around it.
Still, it must be said that there are a number of artifacts of Korean democracy that don’t deserve respect. Leaders of the “Nosamo” (“People who love Roh Moo-hyun”) campaign are being indicted for passing out piggy banks. In Korea, it seems, this is illegal. Why, for mercy’s sake? Fairness. If a piggy bank advises you to vote for Roh Moo-hyun, then that is unfair to the candidates whose strategists failed to think of piggy banks.
Every democracy has a few idiotic laws. I read recently that in York, England, it is statutorily legal to shoot Scots who are “out and about” after dark.
In Korea it is illegal to give away too many newspapers, and two summers ago a couple of press lords were clapped in jail for this horrifying crime. See, they didn’t pay taxes on the revenue they would have made if they had charged for the papers. Thus it is not merely commercially stupid to distribute newspapers and not charge for them; it is also what the law knows as malum in se, evil in itself, just like murder or rape.
Fantasies of fairness underlie this rule, too. If a profitable newspaper cuts its price, then that is unfair to struggling papers that can’t afford to give away their product.
I am pleased to report that the press malefactors have learned their lesson. This year instead of giving away papers, some companies were giving away bicycles, but they jumped when the Fair Trade Commission harrumphed.
It is illegal to be in Hanchongryeon, the radical student organization. I don’t mind personally, because I never wanted to join. But I would like to write about it. I would like to get one of my reporters to do a profile of one of these Hanchongryeon students. We always label them pro-North Korean, but are they? What do they believe? What are they trying to accomplish? What do they read and talk about?
I’d better watch out, though, because two years ago three journalists from a small monthly, Jajuminbo, spent three months in jail for “threatening the safety or existence of the state or liberal democratic order.” They published the views of a suspected North Korea sympathizer, and that is illegal.
That probably explains another of my failures. For two years, I have been ordering my editors to monitor North Korea’s Web site and print, unedited, some of its comments. I think it would be interesting and educational for our readers ― and sometimes inspiring, as when the Pyeongyang organ reports that birds line up in military formation in their trees and sing in four-part harmony as the motorcade of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, passes.
My editors won’t do it. Apparently, they don’t want to follow the Jajuminbo Three into the slammer.
Since when is it a principle of democracy that citizens must be kept ignorant of their enemies?
By the way, you didn’t read about the Jajuminbo journalists at the time, in October 2001. Except for one small left-wing paper, the entire Korean press managed not to notice the prosecution of journalist-criminals for reporting about people with illegal views.
So what about democracy? Democracy must be fought for, but it also must be respected by the protesters in the streets, by the suits with their bundles of cash, by newspapers that refuse to be cowed ― and by the government, which should not insult its citizens with foolish or overprotective laws.
Otherwise, we all end up back in the streets fighting for democracy.
* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Hal Piper