[Viewpoint] Jump off this bandwagon

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[Viewpoint] Jump off this bandwagon

Do you remember the name Kim Dae-eop? It took me a while to recall him. Kim is the man who stirred up the wave of political madness at the time of the 2002 presidential election.

The craziness began five years before that, when Lee Hoi-chang ran for president as the Grand National Party’s candidate. Following accusations that his two sons had dodged the draft, Lee’s popularity plummeted, and he lost the election.

But in 2002, Lee made another presidential bid. He was a strong contender during the first stage of the campaign, and it was clear that he would win the election.

Then Kim made his appearance. He claimed that he had a tape recording of a conversation that documented Lee’s wife’s arranging for her sons to miss the draft. Although Kim was merely repeating allegations that had already shaken up the political arena five years earlier, the scandal spread wildly, and the wind of political madness grew stronger.

Inside the space of 95 days, major TV networks issued 101 reports focused on the scandal, and Lee’s popularity dropped by 11.8 percentage points, one analysis found. Two and a half years after Lee’s defeat in the 2002 presidential election, Kim was convicted of making false accusations, defaming Lee and his family and falsely identifying himself as a civil servant. He was ordered to serve one year and 10 months in prison.

It wasn’t the first time the public jumped on a false idea, and it wouldn’t be the last. In 2008, Koreans swallowed an inaccurate report that claimed that American beef posed a 94 percent chance of causing mad cow disease, and went wild protesting U.S. beef imports. One female protestor recently told the media, “I don’t know why I did it. I felt like I was possessed by something.”

The turbulence in 2008 almost felt like a rebellion. Most egregiously, the former culture minister claimed that 250,000 to 650,000 people had been killed in the U.S. by mad cow disease, and their causes of their deaths had been covered up as dementia. This same minister recently took a trip to the West Coast of America, and ate hamburgers made with American beef four times. He told the media they were edible.

The draft-dodging scandal and the mad-cow disease riots may appear to be separate incidents, but they spring from the same root. They are both portraits of us. They paint the ills of our society, which is both overly emotional and quickly forgetful.

The draft-dodging allegations influenced an election not just once, but two times. When both sons of a presidential candidate were exempted from military duty because they were underweight, it’s natural that suspicions would be raised. But months of investigations unearthed no evidence to back the suspicion, and it was reasonable for a society to let it go right there. Moreover, the candidate ended up losing the election, so just a single scandal should have sufficed. Yet we repeated the entire process five years later. What a strange people we are.

Mad-cow disease was a natural to draw suspicions, because this is a society where people are highly interested in health. But we should have made it our business to find out the facts. A series of media reports should have properly educated society properly about the disease. And yet, there was a force that systemized, politicized and provoked emotions of the public, and the madness of our society continued.

Rumors have swirled since the Navy warship Cheonan was sunk on March 26, but the government has been insistent that rather than jumping to conclusions, the public should wait for the results of the international probe. Those results are expected today. And yet, some have long tried to point in a strange direction for the cause of the naval tragedy.

The Democratic Party has said the probe was controlled by the government and it will not accept the outcome. A member of the investigation team recommended by the opposition party fabricated rumors that the Cheonan had hit another ship, which would likely be identified as a U.S. warship. He also said the Cheonan sunk due to a serious shock because it tried to sail backward after it was destroyed.

The investigative team had made interim announcements disclosing its findings that explosives found in the debris indicated that the Cheonan was destroyed by an external explosion. So why was a member of this same team making this fiction public?

An opposition candidate for the Gyeonggi governorship was another who claimed that the Cheonan had not been destroyed by an explosion, and insisted that some newspapers were reporting false information in order to stir up public fear of North Korea.

Who is writing these fictions? The people who blazon fabrications regarding the Cheonan’s sinking and spark a new madness are clearly a dark force. As long as there are those who try to instigate political madness, Korean society won’t be able to make a step forward.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is president of the Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation and former president of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kwon Young-bin
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