[Viewpoint] Kwak’s battered comeback

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[Viewpoint] Kwak’s battered comeback

Kwak No-hyun, the superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, returned to work after a court slapped him with a fine on a bribery conviction. His homecoming was met with angry protesters shouting at him as he walked into the Seoul education office upon his release. He has returned to work as a guilty man.

The ruling raises a few questions. The person who handed out the money walked free with a fine, and the person who took the money received a jail sentence. The court concluded that the person who gave the money did it out of good will, but the receiver was, however, wrong to accept it. The money, according to its intent, was determined good or bad. The giver more or less was decided as a victim under threat and the taker a thief.

The realm of the law may be a mysterious world beyond the understanding of common people. Franz Kafka, in his novel “The Trial” with the parable chapter “The Chaplain’s Tale,” underscores the injustice and hyperbureaucracy of the legal system against the common people. A farmer tries to get into the court but is stopped by an intransigent gatekeeper. He tries to sneak in, but his desperate efforts are ridiculed by the gatekeeper, who sneers that even if the farmer gets in, he will soon be caught and kicked out by numerous other relentless gatekeepers at a higher level. The farmer without any idea and understanding why he cannot enter the court dies outside the gate.

Is the law so high and mighty that it cannot spare an explanation for the ordinary folks? If not, what explains the different sentencing to the parties both found guilty involved in a shady money deal proclaimed as a crime?

In our lives, the intension can matter more than the end, and vice versa. If the intention serves the end, there is no problem. But at times, it doesn’t work that way. If someone sped to save an emergency patient and caused a deadly car accident on his way to the hospital, he nevertheless would face prosecution regardless of his original good intention.

In religion, the intention is more important than the outcome. Even if someone donated a large sum, his charity would not have meaning in the religious sense if his deed was done for secular prestige. Dropping an unsigned check into the Salvation Army charity pot is appreciated because of its honorable purpose.

But in the all-business political society, the end matters more. The case in question involved money in exchange for the act of bowing out of an election contest. The end is a criminal act, but the sentencing focused on the intention and gave an entirely different ruling to the two people standing on trial.

The trial also raises another moral question. If someone was not directly involved or aware of a crime, does that make that person entirely innocent? Kwak testified that he was not aware that Park Myong-gee, a professor of Seoul National University of Education, was promised money in return for dropping out of a race to run for Seoul education superintendent amid opposition coalition campaign efforts to field Kwak as the sole candidate from the liberal camp.

Imagine a teenager inflicting psychological abuse against a peer at school to such an extent that the latter commits suicide. If the offender insists he was not aware of the evilness and danger of his act, should he be excused? Ignorance can be equally harmful. One is not pardoned for sexual harassment just because he was not aware of the abusive nature of his behavior.

The judge said the prosecution failed to present substantial evidence pointing out that Kwak was aware of the money pledge. But in light of the law on public office elections, that is not that important.

I wonder why the trial was so focused on determining whether Kwak was personally aware of the bribery as it was taking place. As a political official, Park should be responsible for the actions of those close to him regardless of such details.

I understand the liberals are relieved to have Kwak back at the top executive office in charge of the capital’s education administration. But it is hypocritical to claim that corruption of a conservative superintendent is evil but call similar corruption, when performed by a liberal, charity. Where is justice if a different yardstick is applied depending on ideological perspective?

Since when have justice and morality become weaponry to attack the opponent? Kwak was slapped with a fine this time but stands as a guilty man facing higher court rulings. Instead of blindly advocating for Kwak, the liberal camp must refer to its better senses.

Lastly, one word of advice to Kwak: You serve public office as a guilty man. The scarlet letter prohibits any new work, not to mention progressive reforms. An educator is required to guide the mind to the right path, but with what clean conscience can a person found guilty of an unethical deed continue in such a role? Until the final ruling by the Supreme Court, he must refrain from any formal work. It is a way of proving both a sincere devotion to education and the morality of the liberal mind.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a civil ethics education professor of Seoul National University.

by Park Hyo-jong
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