[INSIGHT]Kidnappers and new capitalsA young man with a promising future, Edmond Dantes, is sent to prison due to betrayal of his friend. He spends 14 years in a desperate, stark prison before escaping and getting his revenge to become a winner in life. This is the plot of the novel “The Count of Monte Cristo” by the 19th-century French author Alexandre Dumas.
Jang Dong-hak was kidnapped when he was five years old and spent 44 years in a lonely island off the coast of South Jeolla province doing forced labor in a private house. Freed at last, Mr. Jang’s present fate is to spend the rest of his life in a homeless shelter. Democracy and human rights were supposed to rule over this country since the last century. Where was the state that was supposed to protect human lives and rights during Mr. Jang’s misfortune? For 44 years, he lived without a country. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that our government failed to rescue Kim Sun-il in the faraway land of Iraq when it couldn’t even save Mr. Jang in the country for over 40 years.
Nowadays, even the human rights and dignity of North Korean spies and partisan fighters who fought against the South in the past seem to be the objects of concern here. Yet, who is looking after the rights and dignity of Jang Dong-hak, a citizen of South Korea? I have yet to hear of anyone who expressed remorse or fury over the cruel fate of Mr. Jang. Who is going to take the responsibility of the government’s failure to provide proper protection to Mr. Jang? Isn’t it only right that someone representing the country should apologize to him? The media, too, only dealt with the story in a few lines as a less significant piece of news on the day Mr. Jang was finally freed.
What is reform? What kind of reform is it that is promoted without changing the essence of a country that failed to rescue its own citizen from such long, inhumane suffering? Many people say that there are still many more out there suffering the same fate as Mr. Jang. Even now, there might be numerous people who suffer fates similar to Mr. Jang in coffeehouses, brothels, remote islands and asylums. If so, shouldn’t the government try to rescue them as urgently as possible? What could be more important and urgent than protecting the lives and rights of its citizens? If the current capacity and ability of the government is not sufficient, then acquiring that ability should be the first reform to pursue.
Not all reforms need to be big and holy. The rights of leftists or the ideologues aren’t the only ones worth protecting. The most basic reform that our government should pursue is protecting our people from the violence, human rights abuse and environmental deterioration that are happening around us every day. I’m not talking about some grand scheme to expand the social safety net or welfare programs. I am talking about the bare minimum requirements that make a country a true country. Securing those requirements is our most important and basic reform.
Unfortunately, our government is not directing sufficient efforts into such a reform. One can see this from the cases of Mr. Jang or Kim Sun-il’s death in Iraq. While this government emphasizes indemnity systems, it seems to do little to ensure that some of its most basic functions are performed. If an Associated Press journalist calls with a question, the minimum duty would be to investigate and verify the facts. If there is a petition claiming that a candidate for culture minister had received bribes, the minimum action to take would be to verify the facts before changing the cabinet. We lack even these basics. And we lack the confidence that our government will perform its minimum role when another victim like Mr. Jang moans with pain or another citizen like Mr. Kim is kidnapped.
These days, we are constantly being harried by “big and holy” reforms. The government claims that our country will stand up again if we move our capital city, and that opposing the capital move is demanding that the president step down. It was also said that important state affairs couldn’t be performed on schedule because of vested rights of newspapers that owned huge offices in front of the Government Complex Building. Because the government was so busy with attacks and counterattacks, it didn’t have the time to pay attention to what happened to Mr. Jang. And now, even Mr. Kim’s death is becoming a thing of the past. If an Associated Press journalist makes another call, government officials might respond in a more sincere manner this time, but they didn’t take any action that can give assurance to Mr. Jang or the surviving family of Mr. Kim that South Korea is indeed a country that its people can rely on.
Alleviating the overpopulation of the capital city and pursuing balanced development of Korea’s regions are all necessary jobs. Suspicious deaths must be looked into and persons who had been persecuted by the former governments who opposed their efforts to bring democracy to this country should indeed be compensated. But there is something even more urgent that the government must do. The government must reform itself into a country that does the bare minimum of taking care of its own people.
We should first discuss the most desperate and practical problems related to people’s daily life, like social protection and food for them. Transferring the capital can come later. Today, while so many other “Mr. Jangs” are out there crying and suffering, we are wasting the day arguing over whether the capital of South Korea should be Seoul or not.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Song Chin-hyok