Hiding in plain sight

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Hiding in plain sight

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Sam-eun is an old expression we use to describe three loyal scholars during the period of transition from the Goryeo to the Joseon Dynasty, who remained devoted to their kings even after the dynastic change. The three were Lee Saek, Chung Mong-joo and Kil Jae, who used the pseudonyms Mok-eun, Po-eun and Ya-eun, respectively. Their names all had the Chinese character “eun” which means “hide,” “lie low” or “retire.”

To hide may suggest evasion, but at the same time can mean withdrawing from secular fame and fortune to seek a carefree life.

It could also characterize a soul breaking free from the fetters of temporal desires by mastering passion and suspicion.

In ancient Asia, the concept of hiding was distinguished between a bigger or noble act and a smaller or meager one.

In the smaller meaning, hiding means retiring to a secluded area, while the greater, nobler version refers to concealing oneself in the heart of politics. An ancient book defines it as “keeping moderately low in the government, or in a more active sense, to hide oneself behind a government post.”

These hermits relinquished desires and forsook fame and gains. To leave the town full of secular desires and perils and isolate oneself in a far-flung place would be easier than disciplining oneself in the political circle rife with scheming and shrewdness. That’s why the latter usage, called “dae-eun,” literally meaning “great hermit,” had a laudable or noble connotation.

Today’s Korean society is full of officials living in solitude. But they differ greatly from their ancient teachers.

In fact today, they turn the noble into the ignoble by hiding in an entirely opposite direction: taking shelter in their current post to fulfill their own needs.

Corruption among government officials is not entirely new, but these days it seems to have gotten worse.

Should the ones sitting comfortably in their public posts pocketing taxpayers’ money be referred to as officials keeping moderately low profiles? We cannot be sure.

Former lawmaker Kim Min-seok from the opposition Democratic Party is emblematic of misguided solitude. He should know better than to think he can hide behind his party and conceal allegations charged against him.

If the charges presented by prosecutors ring true, the Democratic Party faces the bigger problem of hiding and helping a person suspected of committing illegal actions.

The Democratic Party must humble itself before the law if it wants to win the hearts of voters disgusted by the ruling party.


The writer is a deputy international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Yoo Kwang-jong [kjyoo@joongang.co.kr]

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