[Viewpoint] An unsentimental education

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[Viewpoint] An unsentimental education

Reality is often more dramatic than fiction. The sentence handed down to Kwak No-hyun, superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education charged with buying off a rival candidate in his election, reads like fiction of the highest order. The 180-page ruling is in simple language and of tepid style, but it has the structure of an epic tragedy.

Our hero Kwak is disheartened. He admits in testimony that he has a hot temper. Anyone who has gotten close enough to him has a story or two to tell about his temperament. His temper underscores his enthusiasm and self-confidence. Some say he lacks a sense of reality. In the positive view, he is pure and idealistic.

There are others who go so far as to interpret his behavior as deriving from a kind of inferiority complex. Kwak studied law at Seoul National University yet did not practice. He taught at Korea National Open University.

Kwak’s entry into educational administration was almost random, although his acquaintances were awed by his political acumen. He didn’t have any new ideas about role of the office of education superintendent. He was lured into the field by trading advice on the students’ rights law with liberal education chief Kim Sang-kon of Gyeonggi.

Kwak said he began to take an interest in education by working on the ordinance to enhance student rights and it developed into a passion. The liberal camp, impressed by his devotion to the ordinance, fielded him as its candidate to run for the Seoul superintendent post.

In and out of court, Kwak strongly denied the charge that he bribed his rival within the liberal camp to drop out of the race. Park Myong-gee, a professor at Seoul National University of Education, is said to have repeatedly demanded money in return for bowing out of the race. The judges concluded that a deal had been made to compensate Park with 500 million won ($444,000) without Kwak’s awareness. Many can shake their heads, but knowing his character, it is possible that Kwak was kept in the dark.

Kwak is said to have walked out of the room in which the final deal was being bargained as soon as he learned that money was involved. He remained stubbornly opposed when civic activist Rhyu Si-choon tried to persuade him to strike a deal to pay Park 350 million won on the morning the liberal camp was set to announce its single candidate in the race. And it’s said he was overjoyed when his aides lied to him and said Park gave up his candidacy without any strings attached. He was either too naive or lacked political sensitivity.

As soon as he won the election and took office, Kwak remained consistent. He kicked Park out of his office when the latter demanded reparations. He also refused to offer a job to Park’s aide. He gave his former rival the cold shoulder when the latter tried to bargain for a lucrative business project instead of money.

The problem is that no one is taking responsibility for the promise of a payoff to Park. The professors from the liberal camp who agreed to a 500 million won deal are keeping mum. Seoul National University’s Choi Gap-soo, a key negotiator in the whole dirty deal, proposed to keep the deal secret from Kwak. When Kwak approached him about it directly, he shrugged it off and blamed others for taking his suggestion seriously. He then asked that his name not be mentioned in the case because he was involved in the campaign to oppose the government’s plan to privatize Seoul National University.

Kwak was left all alone to deal with the case. His aides suggested they ignore Park once the election was over. But he decided to deliver the promised money. He told his wife and pleaded for money from relatives. He tells himself that his action is out of good will and not illegal. To show his good intentions, he tops off the 150 million won he initially intended to give Park with an extra 50 million won.

Because he gave the money to Park, he was convicted. He claims himself innocent nevertheless because his intent was good. But the sentence has been delivered and is highly unlikely to be overturned in higher courts. If his ruling is finalized, he will lose his post and also have to repay 3.5 billion won in campaign funds reimbursed by the National Election Committee upon his victory. Where will that 3.5 billion won come from? Kwak will probably have to settle the bill on his own after being kicked out of office. His nightmare may only be starting.

How does the liberal camp come out in this saga? Many choose to keep silent or look the other way although they knew the full story. The liberals are sacrificing one individual for their ideological goal. They were accomplices to a crime.

The story is a tragedy because it shows the liberals are as corrupt as the conservatives.

*The author is senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byung-sang
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