[Viewpoint] Betraying public authority

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[Viewpoint] Betraying public authority

The country’s moral pillars are crumbling. The government sought a free trade agreement for the sake of the country’s future. The pact with the United States is part of the country’s economic policy on the foreign front. It is among several free trade deals and the largest after the one signed with the European Union.

The free trade arrangement was first initiated and justified by former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun. The incumbent conservative government renegotiated the deal and worked hard to incorporate demands from the opposition and to support programs to assist vulnerable industries.

But the opposition remained vehemently against the FTA. The head of the main opposition party, a former presidential candidate, spearheaded the opposition front. Ruling party members advocating for the free trade deal with the U.S. were bombarded with tirades and viral attacks in cyberspace.

A radical opposition lawmaker detonated a tear gas canister in the National Assembly. Riot police were punched and beaten by a crowd of anti-FTA protesters over the weekend, and a Seoul district police chief was also assaulted and humiliated. The country has lost its sense of decency and justice.

Three years ago, a similar insanity gripped our society. The entire country was swept up in hysterical fears of being infected with mad cow disease from American beef. During the summer of 2008, the streets swarmed with protesters and violent clashes day and night. Two policemen were injured by a mob of protesters that July. They were beaten and their uniforms torn by the frenzied mob. Someone threw a stone at a policeman’s face. The officers were ultimately pushed over to the police side as if they were war prisoners being returned.

A week after, I wrote a column entitled “A uniform is the skin of the state.” “In a military regime, the uniform symbolized the armory. But in the age of democracy, the uniform stands for the state’s skin. To tear a police uniform is like injuring the skin of the state. To injure a policeman on duty is an act of violence against the state,” I wrote.

Assaults against public authority also took place 17 years ago during the Roh Tae-woo government. On the evening of June 3, 1991, newly appointed Prime Minister Chung Won-shik had been heading to finish a lecture at a graduate school. He was attacked by students who were angry at Chung’s crackdown on unionized teachers while he was the education minister. Chung was choked, punched in the face and kicked around. A few sprayed flour on his face. Chung was dragged by a mob for about half an hour before he finally made an escape.

The government and society have been stern about assaults on public authorities since the incident. The enraged president headed an emergency meeting. The consensus was a call for tougher law enforcement. The students were tried in a court and civilian activists canceled a planned nationwide rally.

President Roh, who was often criticized for being soft, exercised reason and flexibility during the cascade of the democracy movement during his term. But he kept a Maginot Line. As an army general, he knew the significance of public authority and the symbolic significance of a uniform. He respected freedom of expression and rallies, but at the same time, he endeavored to uphold public authority.

President Lee Myung-bak and his government more or less flunked the task of defending public authority. Due to a lack of leadership and philosophy, the president has put public authority in jeopardy several times. During the candlelight protests against American beef, he took a stroll along the hills behind the Blue House humming a popular demonstration tune. When police officers were injured, he was at his holiday resort enjoying a break.

Because of feeble leadership from the president, the ruling party also undermines law enforcement’s authority. The ruling party head publicly protested police action to disperse an illegal protest atop a crane in a Busan shipyard. Some ruling party members criticized the use of water canons against demonstrators.

But they were silent about the violence and the illegality of demonstrations. They looked away from the insane mad cow scare and the disrespect for public authority even as they envy strict law enforcement practices in advanced societies. Do they have any moral standards?

The incumbent government is not worthy of the authority invested in it by the public because it does not know how to use or defend it. The president is wanting in philosophy and principles, and politicians are mere weather vanes. But the state is being humiliated and violated.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jin
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