[Interview] Keeping a lid on power, not opinions

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[Interview] Keeping a lid on power, not opinions

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Lee Kang-kook, President of the Constitutional Court of Korea By Ahn Seong-sik

Korean society stands at a crossroads in 2012. General elections in April and a presidential election for December have set the stage for clashes over new leadership and the future direction of the nation.

The JoongAng Ilbo took the opportunity to interview Lee Kang-kook, president of the Constitutional Court of Korea, to mine his thoughts on the role of the court as well as on a number of pressing social trends.

Lee was born on Sept. 17, 1945, in Imsil, North Jeolla. He graduated from Seoul National University’s law school and passed the bar exam in 1967. Starting his career as a judge at the Daejeon District Court in 1972, he subsequently served as a senior judge at the Seoul High Court and president of the Supreme Court Library, among other prestigious appointments.

Lee was appointed as a Supreme Court Justice in 2000 and became head of the Constitutional Court in January 2007. During his tenure at the latter, he found a key clause of the Electric Telecommunication Act that imposed hefty fines on those who transmit false information to be unconstitutional due to the vague nature of the term “intent to harm public interest.”

The case caused a huge stir at the time as it focused on the actions of a financial blogger known as “Minerva” who stood accused of electronically spreading false rumors about the Korean economy.

Lee, who has one year left of his six-year term, said the chief purpose of the Korean Constitution is to protect the happiness of all, and that guaranteeing their freedom and rights plays second fiddle to this over-riding objective. The JoongAng Ilbo asked Lee to share his thoughts on society and the value of the Constitution as he sees it.


Q. The Constitutional Court ranked first last year in terms of influence and credibility in a survey of government agencies. Is this a fair analysis?

A. I feel deeply moved to hear this at the start of a new year. I think people have evaluated our efforts to make society more integrated, while also shoring up the main tenets and values of the Constitution.

How would you evaluate the court’s performance over the last five years?

Constitutional problems regarding social issues popped up many times, and I would say the court worked hard to consider the needs of people at all levels of society.

What was the significance of overturning the Electric Telecommunication Act?

Freedom of expression is one of the most basic rights of citizens in a modern democratic society, so any power the state has to limit this should be minimal. The purpose, process and methodology behind these restrictions should also be very clear. The significance of the ruling [you just mentioned] is that it offered clearer guidelines for how to interpret this.

Some people believe that the proliferation of groundless rumors online could throw society into chaos. Do you agree?

I think those rumors will be filtered out in the free market of ideas. Of course, false information and opinions can be circulated that will ultimately have a nefarious influence on society, but if we try to weed out everything that could be construed as harming the public interest, then all political expression would potentially be at risk.

In sum, if the process of self-vetting does not work, statutes and punishments should be applied.

Is this why the court allowed election campaigns can be conducted online?

That is part of the reason, but it was mostly the result of reevaluating how people use the Internet. The Web is cheaper and more egalitarian than most other media. It accords with the philosophy of the election law, which is that funds should be limited but speech liberated.

But doesn’t this ruling conflict with another clause in the Public Official Election Act that banishes such pre-election activities?

First of all, the law enforcement agency must take a stance on this. The Constitutional Court’s ruling does not have to be followed, but it must be taken into consideration when applying the law.

There is something of a vacuum in the Constitutional Court these days as the recommended candidate, Jo Yong-hwan, has yet to be elected after making some controversial comments on the sinking of the Cheonan warship last June. What are your thoughts on this?

Korean law states that the Constitutional Court must be comprised of nine justices, but we have not seen an incoming justice for over six months, which is a de facto violation of the Constitution. The government agencies that are responsible for this need to work harder to resolve the issue, as we are currently delaying important cases based on the logic that decisions could be easily overturned right now.

How do you respond to criticisms that the court takes sides on political cases?

Our society has a tendency to interpret the court’s decisions in their favor, both politically and socially. But people do not have to worry about the political neutrality of the Constitutional Court.

What do you think about judges making controversial comments on social networking services?

Some judges argue that we have freedom of expression. Of course, all people [in a free society] have freedom of expression, but for government officials, especially judges, the Constitution strongly urges that they remain politically neutral and independent.

How do you view the recent conflicts and feuding in Korean society?

We should see these as growing pains. The conservative camp should stop being so greedy and move forward with more reform-minded policies, while the liberals should break away from their ideological biases and be more responsible and humble.


By Kwon Seok-chun, Lee Yoo-jeong [kjoo@joongang.co.kr]

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