A litmus test
This year marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, agreed to by King John of England under the pressure of the church and a group of aristocrats on June 15, 1215. In fact, Magna Carta — an agreement between the ruler and the ruled — could have been treated as just one incident in the medieval history of England. But at every historic juncture since then, it’s symbolic value has grown for having declared the basic values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
In the current era of modernization and globalization, democratization has become a key trend in history. As evidenced in the British parliamentary system, the independence of the United States and U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations, the rule of law presented in the Magna Carta based on agreement between the ruler and the ruled has become a universal standard that most societies in our world cannot deny. Our March 1 Declaration of Independence and our constitution are examples of Korea actively following the tide of world history.
In the West, natural law and social contract theories particularly catch our attention in the process of promoting democracy and human rights. Men are born to be social, and a community life for a country is a natural condition, Aristotle argued. It is the church’s stance that the existence of Almighty God is a precondition for such evolution. Thomas Aquinas made a contribution by successfully putting together the preconditions of the Roman law and institutionalization of law and standards is the key to realizing those principles on rational terms. The universities of Paris and Oxford had enabled the principles, which deserves our special attention for their existences and energy. Meanwhile, an attempt to base relations between the ruler and the ruled, the legitimacy of state power, validity of the rule of law and the duty to obey the state power and law on an agreement or contract between individuals of free will became active through the contribution of the theorists of social contract since the 17th century.
It would be better to make an inference rather than providing a simple explanation that in the East, particularly in Korea, the natural law and social contract theories emerged in a slightly different way than they did in the West. It was Zhu Xi of the Song dynasty who made an attempt to provide a metaphysical understanding of nature and humans and came up with a new prescription for political norms, going beyond the instructive lessons of big Confucian scholars including Confucius. The year 1215, when Magna Carta was announced, Korea was in the second year of King Gojong’s rule in Goryeo (918-1392). At the time, rule by aristocrats gave way to the rule of military officials such as Choi Chung-heon. Toward the end of Goryeo, more officials with academic backgrounds gained power and the role of the newly emerged nobility expanded, as seen in the dramatic rise of such Neo-Confucianism scholars as Yi Saek, JeongMong-ju and Jeong Do-jeon.The trend of Zhu Xi’s philosophy contributed to the institutionalization of the Yangban aristocratic society of Joseon, enhanced the status of farmers, and helped improve the status of the lowest class — openning up a possibility of Joseon as a nation-state.
The scholars of the “Silhak” or practical learning school of the late Joseon dynasty did not necessarily emphasize the social contract, but they paid enormous attention to the people’s welfare and relevant practical tasks. After becoming Catholics in particular, they often embraced the ideology of western Democracy and human rights. It is no incident that Syngman Rhee — who became a protestant at the end of the 19th century and was imprisoned after calling for reform toward a constitutional government — was elected the first president of the Republic of Korea in 1948. So too for Yun Posun, the second president.
Over the past 110 years, Korean history was filled with the independence movement against Japanese colonization, modernization and industrialization to escape from economic poverty and with democratization struggles to fight the authoritarian political brutality. In other words, it was a national effort to aim for a democratic country where human dignity and rights are protected by the constitution and law and order established by the people. The arrival of democratization 28 years ago was a tremendous moment as if Korea had declared its own Magna Carta.
Two years later, the first-generation experiment of a democracy run by six presidents over 30 years will end. Did the Korean democracy, known as “the 1987 system,” really succeed in institutionalization — and raising the efficiency — of a country’s governance?Did the constitutional government thoroughly protect the people’s rights? Did we establish a representative democracy in which the people’s will and choices were faithfully represented? Is social justice being realized to reduce inequality and poverty? That is a litmus test that today’s Korea cannot avoid.
It is fortunate and timely that Edinburgh University is holding a symposium in memory of its alumnus, Yun Posun, in Seoul next week under the theme of Magna Carta and democratic leadership. It should serve as an opportunity to remember the hardships of democratization that Yun had to go through.