[Viewpoint] The many facets of power abuse

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[Viewpoint] The many facets of power abuse

Recently, something on one of the many poster adverts for local universities caught my eye. In the photograph, four eager, studious looking 20-something Koreans were stood around a professorially-dressed white man, as he gesticulated authoritatively, and imparted wisdom in some important academic discipline.

If this were an isolated type of image, it would not be important. But very often in Korea I feel that certain people, and organizations, still have this rather subservient, development-era mentality that the opinions and approval of Westerners - especially Americans - are somehow of utmost importance. When Dokdo activists or Korean cuisine promoters want to place an advert about their cause, it is always The New York Times to which they turn. Those posters exhorting us to walk on the right always contain lists of Western countries which also adhere to this “global” standard (I also wonder why Africa or South America are never considered part of this “global” realm).

Similarly, when I wrote a column a few months back about the imprisonment of Chung Bong-ju, some people responded by asking me how such cases are dealt with in the West, and about broader issues like the strength of civil society and democracy in my own country, the U.K. I think their expectation was probably that my answer would show Britain to be a model of openness in comparison to Korea.

Unfortunately, that is not really the case these days. Not content with Britain being the world’s leading user of CCTV cameras, next month, the government is to introduce to parliament a plan to allow the real-time monitoring of any email or telephone conversation, as well as any Web sites visited. At the same time, they also aim to bring in secret court hearings, in order to protect “sensitive” evidence.

If the government spies on you in South Korea, at least it is still rightly considered outrageous and wrong. We found out as much in the past few days. In my country though, state snooping on citizens may soon be taken as perfectly acceptable, at least in the eyes of the law. The rationale for this - as it always is - is national security, and more specifically, the prevention of terrorism in the “post 9/11 world,” as the cliche runs.

Britain had ample experience of terrorism prior to 2001, though. From the 1970s to the late 1990s, various violent paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland killed over 3,000 people, and yet for some reason, radical Islamic terrorism is somehow seen as the game-changer that allows encroachment on the liberties of private citizens.

It should not be. Though we do need to find ways to monitor those genuinely suspected of very serious crimes, giving the authorities the right to monitor absolutely anything anyone says is not something that should happen in a democratic country. In my conception of democracy at least, the notion of fallibility is central: Because we acknowledge that people in power can make mistakes, have moral failings and prejudices and are vulnerable to conflicts of interest, we do not allow secret trials or unlimited powers to spy on citizens.

Can people trust their government, either in Korea or Britain, or anywhere else? No more or less than they can trust anyone else, would be my best guess - for a government is simply made up of people, who all have their own weaknesses and faults. For that reason, if we allow governments to increase their powers to a point where abuses could theoretically occur, then we should take for granted that abuses will occur.

Continuing with the theme of abuse, please forgive me if this is just my cultural misunderstanding, but I really do not appreciate being disturbed by the loud music blasted out by national assembly candidates’ campaign teams at all hours of the day. I would be curious also to know if any professors of politics have studied whether this strategy actually increases a candidate’s chance of success. I’m sure I cannot be alone in wishing they would find other ways of getting their message across.

Since I’m not Korean, I cannot vote. But if I could, I would draw up a table and award each candidate points, based on their ability to refrain from doing the following:

- Destroying classic songs by replacing the original lyrics with the candidate’s name.

- Handing out business cards with slogans like “I will remember our precious meeting.” If a candidate does this to you, make sure to test them on the details of your first meeting the next time you see them.

- Handing out business cards that highlight which famous politician they worked for, or which fancy university they attended, rather than what they plan to do for the district.

- Sending text messages of any kind. I’m no longer hearing from a communication director I knew, but political SMSs continue unabated. Something tells me, however, that they will mysteriously lose interest in sending them from April 12th onwards.

- Using any of the following words on campaign material: future, dream, love or hope. Sincere “effort” would be a lot better.

*The author is an Economist correspondent in Seoul. His first book, “Korea: The Impossible Country” will be published soon.

by Daniel Tudaor
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