[VIEWPOINT]A distorted view of justiceWhat constitutes a just society?
The political and philosophical definition of justice is an inevitable question for the human being who is living as a social animal in a community. We have been asking ourselves this very question for ages, but there is no concrete answer to the question yet.
Although no single answer can convince everyone, we do have a general idea. A society is more just the more its members consider the society unjust and feel shame for that reason.
The same rule applies to any group or individual. The more an individual feels that he himself is unjust, the group to which he belongs or the individual is more likely to pursue justice.
This paradox of justice cannot be expected of today’s Korean society, all of whose members claim to be just.
The current administration and ruling party, which are absorbed in justifying their involvement in the democracy movement in the past, claim to represent the justice of the “present.” Therefore, criticizing the policies of the Roh Moo-hyun administration or the ruling party is often denounced as a conspiracy by conservative anti-government elements who oppose social justice.
The arrogance of such self-proclaimed justice denies all self-reflecting questions. Compared to the “absolute evil” of the military regimes, the few problems of the democracy movement are extremely trivial, they insist.
At the same time, these people emphasize justice for the underdog. They have finally obtained political power after a long struggle, but they feel they are surrounded by conservative elements. They say that constantly picking on the problems of the democracy movement, instead of covering them up, would only help the conservative, anti-government faction. Their rhetoric is virtually a revival of the “besieged fortress” syndrome.
If the regime under Stalin, who had silenced all internal criticism in order to save Soviet Russia, was a leftist “besieged fortress,” the Yusin authoritarianism that ignored the democratic demands and criticisms because of the threat of North Korea was a rightist “besieged fortress.” The syndrome is more terrifying because it is a socio-psychological condition under which all injustices are justified under the name of a greater justice.
The legitimacy of the democracy movement can take root more firmly in civil society not by blocking criticism but by filtering itself through the criticism. If the memories of the democracy movement are sanctified, it is already an anti-democratic way of remembering the past.
Another part of society is trying to criticize the justice of the present based on the justice of the past. The Textbook Forum, which is trying to rewrite the modern history of Korea by changing the “self-tormenting view of history” and emphasizing the glorious economic achievements, is the most notable example.
I do not intend to pick on the forum for using a “self-tormenting view of history,” a phrase coined by the Japanese rightists. I have repeatedly pointed out that nationalism in the Korean Peninsula and nationalism in Japan are in hostile symbiosis with each other. At the same time, I do not deny the fact that we have achieved economic growth and established a democratic system.
However, the bigger problem is the historical perspective itself that sees past authoritarianism as a “history of success.” The history of the Republic of Korea as a history of success represents the justice of the past, and therefore, all the criticism of the past is suppressed. The suicide of labor activist Chun Tae-il, the persistent labor protest of Dongil Textile Company, and the People’s Revolution Party incident had to be buried in the “history of success.”
Such historical perspective only justifies the past instead of helping Korea repent of its post-war history. This could develop into a theory that small injustices such as human rights infringement and labor oppression can be sacrificed for the greater justices of economic growth and national development.
When the justice of the present and the justice of the past collide, the Korean society cannot be called truly just.
A truly just society does not argue about egocentric justice but overflows with self-reflective shame.
* The writer is a professor of history at Hanyang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lim Jie-hyun