[Viewpoint] Time to remember our place

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[Viewpoint] Time to remember our place

We still do not know whether late former President Roh Roh-hyun will be considered one of the most esteemed leaders in Korean history for ages to come. An effort to evaluate him in recorded history has already begun, but this work is underway from contrary points of view and using conflicting logic.

As an adviser to Roh around two years after his inauguration, I realized that there was a huge gap between the late president in the news and his reality in appearance. I felt sorry and frustrated occasionally. I still have the same feeling in my heart.

He was a man of learning and experience despite his shallow academic background. Although he was not formal in his words and deeds, he was capable of profound thought. He held fast to his principles, but bowed his head in humility when dealing with others.

Above all, he excelled in developing a comprehensive understanding of a situation and analyzing it, equipped with logical reasoning and intuitive knowledge. He improved himself through reading all the time, and continued to seek and speculate about history and nature, with a deep interest in things.

Although people often call him a politician of confrontation and conflict, he was modest and ready to be persuaded by others. Those of us who got close to him saw he valued practical measures above anything else. He always spiced up any conversation with jokes, even while he was being attacked in political circles and the press. I could hardly believe he had died.

We face the daunting task of calmly remembering the course he followed for years and his accomplishments, and of cherishing the thoughts of the past. We ought now glorify him out of guilt for failing to prevent his death, nor ought we belittle his accomplishments, with nose upturned in opposition to him. When people regain a calm historical perspective on him and the period of public mourning comes to an end, the task of determining his legacy will be initiated in earnest, and it will take a long time to complete.

However, at this moment, one message his miserable death left us would be, “Serve your own role.” He endeavored to decentralize power and develop democracy. However, the authority that he gave up as president aggravated inefficiencies in state management and social conflict rather than promoting sound democratic development. The power structure concentrated on the president was not a major cause of his death.

President Roh had less freedom to operate as he desired within the power structure stipulated in our Constitution. In his place, presidents of past eras incapacitated the National Assembly and the efficiency of state management by resorting to undemocratic and superconstitutional means, suppressing the opposition and the press by mobilizing authoritarian power.

Upon his inauguration, Roh declared that he would not use his authority as a political instrument and would return the executive to its place as stipulated in the law. But though he implemented many policies during his term in office, legislation still proceeds slowly. The political landscape has stumbled.

We have to reflect on whether the prosecution, having escaped the control of the head of state, lost its moderation and balance and became a force all its own, or whether the press, freed from the chains of dictatorship, went political, instigating cliques and conflicts in our society.

Is political revenge doomed to repeat itself, as it did when authority was concentrated in the president? No. So is a decentralized power structure the answer? No. Rather, it is the only way to prevent the tragedy from recurring, as the authorities in power, the press, academic circles and civil society should know how to exercise moderation and play their own roles in a democratic society.

Prosecutors should use moderation, relying on tangible truths rather than public sentiment, while seeking social justice. The press should establish sound discipline and balance by serving its own role as the calm observer and commentator of our democracy, rather than throwing itself into the ring, endeavoring to accomplish its own goals and further its own agenda. Scholars should not neglect their own duty of criticizing the situation in writing and presenting alternative measures, but ought not become a political force by creating activist organizations.

Since the democratization movement, people have raised their voices seeking to guard and expand their own rights, without regard to temperance and balance, in our society. In the process, all of us has fallen lower. All of us have lost.

The message arising from this tragedy is that it is high time that we went back to our own place.


*The writer is a professor of economics at Sogang University’s Graduate School of International Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Cho Yoon-je

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