[Viewpoint] Ethics: the price for independence

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[Viewpoint] Ethics: the price for independence

It is difficult to know a person’s true colors in ordinary times. But when he faces difficulties, his true colors are revealed more easily. It is the same for society. When society faces difficulties, its depth and limits are revealed in the course of handling them.

Former President Roh Moo-hyun’s death offered us a chance to understand our society better.

Only one and a half years ago, people were disappointed with Roh’s rule and abandoned his chosen successor, instead voting for Lee Myung-bak with a whopping margin of 5 million votes, the biggest in Korea’s history. After being defeated in the election, Roh’s party did its best to get rid of every trace of him. But his death has changed that atmosphere completely.

Now the same people maintain that Roh’s political legacy must be upheld. We can understand that politicians have always been like that, but now even intellectuals have joined the trend. Praising Roh’s politics has become a mainstream trend, most likely because people were surprised to see how many mourned over the deceased leader with such enthusiasm. Should we go back to Roh’s politics now because the atmosphere has changed?

In a democracy, support from the majority is the primary factor in determining how things ought to be done. However, if only the majority’s support is taken into consideration, the direction of the country has to be changed according to the whims and momentary thoughts of the public.

That would make democracy a most unstable institution. To prevent this, having institutions to stabilize democracy are important. Wherever the wind may come from, whoever may take power, a fair judiciary system, independent media outlets, universities that focus on studies and an apolitical military are necessary institutions that help democracy stay stable. If these institutions are strong, a country will not swing from side to side with changes in power or according to a capricious public.

In our country’s past, these institutions did not operate as they should have due to oppression by the powerful. Therefore, the people wanted democratization. But now, even though our country has been democratized, it is hard to say confidently that these institutions are completely free from influence by the powerful. Roh’s death was caused by the prosecutors’ office failing to fulfill its duties as it should. When the case became serious enough to summon a former president, the prosecutors should have decided whether he should be detained or not as soon as he was summoned. No matter what the political circles might say, no matter how public opinions might flow, the prosecutors’ office should have stayed faithful to its role. Its standard is the law. But the prosecutors were indecisive and caused all the trouble we have now.

Those who criticize the incumbent government say these institutions have been turning into servants to the administration. But they would resort to populism to resolve the problem, relying on the power of the majority. Those who work at these institutions who need to protect their independence are also influenced by populist moves. University professors release political statements instead of working on their studies. This is the problem with our society today. Our country is unstable not because the general public changes its mind frequently but because those who work at major institutions do not behave appropriately.

David Souter is an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. This month, before he turns 70, he will retire voluntarily even though he is allowed to stay in the post until he dies. He was appointed by former President George H. W. Bush in 1990, but he did not blindly follow conservatism. He is known to vote more with the liberal wing, following his own convictions, although that caused Republicans to call him a traitor.

Even though he was appointed by the powerful, he demonstrated with his life what an independent judiciary means. In order to protect his independence, he distanced himself from the political circles in Washington and from high society. In order to avoid temptation, he brought a container of yogurt and an apple every day for lunch and ate them alone. The power of the judiciary system of the United States stems from the attitude of such justices.

Our civil institutions have been failing mostly because of people who are greedy for promotions. In order to take a higher position, one caters to the powerful and at the same time tends to ignore his duties to society.

To make our society truly democratic, the so-called elite must be faithful to their duties, instead of being greedy for higher posts. Professionals must have the courage to keep to their work ethics. A journalist must behave as a journalist, and a judge as a judge. It is their duty to avoid the temptation of more power and money, to fight populist pressure and to take responsibility for their jobs and duties. If these are not achieved, Korea’s society will remain unstable for a long time.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Moon Chang-kuek
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