[INSIGHT]Where are the dissenters?In some ways, giving direct advice to one’s leader is even harder in this age of democracy than it was under monarchical rule. During the Joseon Dynasty, the scholar-bureaucrats often risked their lives to offer advice to the king, but these days, we have yet to hear of any public servant or politician risking anything.
In 1611, a young scholar named Yim Suk-yeong took the final stage of the examination to become a government official under King Gwanghegun. The king himself had come up with the essay questions, which were about factional politics and reform of the taxation system. However, in his answer, Mr. Yim wrote, “Why does Your Royal Highness not ask about the real great calamities and social ills?”
He went on to criticize the interference of the queen and the concubines in palace personnel affairs and other mistakes committed during the king’s reign. He then suggested allowing people to express their opinions and urged the prince to exercise more self-discipline.
The examiners chose his answer as the best, but the enraged king overruled them. However, high-ranking officials, including Prime Minister Lee Deok-hyeong and Deputy Premier Lee Hang-bok, protested the king’s decision. Four months later, the king had to endorse Mr. Yim’s success on the exam.
After hearing this story of the past and then witnessing the Roh Moo-hyun government and the government party trying to bulldoze the National Security Act today, one cannot help wondering if the present government is more deaf to outside opinion than the palace of Gwanghegun.
There are different opinions about the National Security Act even within the government and the governing Uri Party. The prime minister and the justice minister have personally backed a revision of the law, not an abolition of the law.
However, the president came out on television and declared that the National Security Act had to go. This was the final word. After the president spoke, those who favored a revision of the law or a more prudent way of approaching the issue lost their voice. There was never a real debate on the issue among them.
It doesn’t take a scholar of the Joseon Dynasty to stand up and say, “Mr. President, that’s not it. You have to consider other aspects as well.” If they were part of a democratic group, they should have spoken frankly about their objections.
It would have been natural had they exhibited a willingness to actively debate among themselves on the diverse positions and then solicit the public’s opinions.
Had the ruling camp done this, public opinion would not have been split into two overnight and 1,500 respected senior leaders of various fields would not have had to step forward to raise their objections before the president.
Does the fact that there are no such honest dissenters in this government mean that the government officials today are lesser than the bureaucrats during the Joseon Dynasty? Or was the Joseon government more democratic than today’s government?
The Roh government claims that it likes debates. However, major national issues that have rocked the entire country, such as the abolition of the National Security Act, the investigation of collaborators during the Japanese colonial period and the relocation of the administrative capital, were all decided and pursued without sufficient debate.
How is it that an administration that claims to welcome debate has so few dissenting voices within it? The 150 legislators of the governing party, the numerous ministers and vice-ministers, the aides ― is everyone, without exception, in favor of the new administrative capital, the inquiries during the colonial period and the abolition of the National Security Act? That seems very unlikely.
From the outside, it seems that some of these people are pursuing a policy against their own beliefs, and there are reportedly many high-ranking government officials who express their concerns about this oppressive atmosphere within the government.
Yet no one is offering up their opinions or attempting to change things within the government. No one is even resigning in protest. Is it normal for a government to be 100 percent behind a national project that 60 to 80 percent of the people oppose?
There were honest dissenters even under the military regime. A famous soldier-turned-politician once told his president, who was bragging after he came back from a summit meeting, “Mr. President, you are acting too excited these days” to his face.
In another case, an aide to President Kim Young-sam once caused everyone in the room to hold their breath in suspense when he told the president, “The detention of your son Hyun-chul is inevitable.”
Is there anyone in the Roh government who can speak out so honestly? If our government consists only of men and women who can’t speak their minds and give honest advice, then our country is doomed. It is a serious problem that a new government is already showing such signs of inflexibility and blindness.
I recently met a former minister who told me, “I feel so ashamed to have been a minister under a corrupted man who took billions of won in bribes without even knowing it.” If the present-day ministers don’t want to feel shame in the future, it is crucial that they perform their duties now.
If they are part of a good government, their names could be remembered fondly by future generations, but if they are part of a bad government, they will only suffer from mental pains and maybe even become an embarrassment to their children in the future.
Any high-ranking official who has a responsibility to this government should speak out to make sure that this government does not turn into a bad one, if not for posterity’s sake, then for his or her own sake. History teaches us that staying silent while wrongdoings are committed is in itself a wrongdoing.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Song Chin-hyok