[Viewpoint] A crisis in Korea’s political culture

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[Viewpoint] A crisis in Korea’s political culture

Everyone has a book that one reads cover to cover, underlining meaningful passages along the way. “The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture” is one such book for me. It was published in 1985 and written by Bo Yang, an anti-government Taiwanese writer who had received a death sentence and spent nine years in prison. The book was translated by Kim Young-su, who specializes in Chinese-language books, and was first published in Korea in 2005. The book points out problems of Chinese civilization and proposes improvements. To me, Bo’s advice sounded like a warning to Koreans as well. The following is an excerpt from the book:

“Electing the wrong leader is no different from having a tailor fix the door. The tailor would put the door in upside down. The homeowner would say, ‘Are you blind? You just put the door in upside down!’ The tailor would say, ‘It is you who is blind, having a tailor fix a door when I specialize in making clothes.’”

Bo constantly urged citizens to think critically. Without the ability to pick the right leaders, citizens were no different from the homeowner who hired a tailor to fix the door. If you cannot distinguish a beauty from a beast, you cannot blame anyone else. Maybe we have been blind.

The nation is in a big mess, both inside and out. Not even half of the president’s term has passed, but things stink. While everything may seem intact on the surface, if you look inside, you’ll find all kinds of bugs and maggots. It’s like we’re watching an old film about the authoritarian period. An innocent civilian is forcibly investigated by the authorities, and memories of torture linger. Prosecutors enjoy free drinks and merrymaking, while corruption threatens to destroy the educational system from the inside.

Politicians are not much better. While they should have learned a lesson from their defeat in recent local elections, the ruling party politicians are still blinded by a power struggle and are taking aim at each other. They claim that they are working for the nation and the citizens, but to me, they are only moths attracted to the burning flame of power. Maybe this is only natural, since the Blue House is run by third-rate officials with little understanding of public service when the presidential office should be filled with elite professionals.

The administration is so shaky, we cannot expect much from other government officials. The marine defense line was violated by a North Korean attack, and dozens of lives were lost, but no one is stepping forward to take responsibility. Instead, the government is complaining that civilians who don’t understand the unique military situation have undermined the honor and spirit of the armed forces.

Working-level Foreign Ministry officials are claiming a “half success” after suffering a diplomatic humiliation at the UN Security Council. They blame China and international politics, but these obstacles are nothing new.

Shouldn’t they show some sense of shame and accountability? If the leader had set an example that there was no place for deception in public service, such disgraceful behavior would never have been displayed. It is only natural that bureaucrats abuse the weakness of the leader as soon as his vulnerability is revealed.

More and more people complain that we chose the wrong leader. Some voters say they were blinded by the president’s promises to revive the economy. However, you have to take responsibility and pay the price for your wrong decisions, no matter how painful it may be. That’s democracy.

Humans all have their faults, and leaders are no exception. But a leader has to have at least one virtue: tolerance. A true leader must listen to other voices and not blame others. Are any officials in the Blue House willing to risk their positions and oppose the president? If the Blue House had a few honest, courageous aides, the situation would be much better. This is the president’s fault above all else, and it’s a tragedy for him, too.

I have rarely seen a government that blames others like Lee Myung-bak’s. They blame the lost decade, former president Roh Moo-hyun, candlelight vigils, the Internet, pro-Pyongyang leftists, Kim Jong-il, Park Geun-hye, external circumstances, the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and others for their faults. The administration makes excuses by pushing responsibility onto others. Even if the justifications are valid, citizens have more respect for leaders who show accountability.

When Mencius spoke about humanity, righteousness, propriety and wisdom, he said that feeling ashamed of wrongdoing was the basis of righteousness. We only expect tolerance from a leader with a sense of shame.

“How can the citizens blame and accuse others when they themselves aren’t qualified? Having cheered for a man who does not deserve respect, how can you rebuke him for riding on top of your neck?” Bo once asked. Do his words only apply to greater China? Korea’s foundation is far too shaky to make the same mistakes.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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