Breeding a culture of democracyPresident Park Geun-hye thought she was playing her cards well by taking the lid off dirty deals behind the lavish real estate development known as LCT near Haeundae Beach in Busan. She must have believed the prosecution probe on the bribery case would trace back to the opposition party’s Moon Jae-in and her adversary in the ruling party Kim Moo-sung and take some attention away from her. It would have been a desperate move to save herself at the expense of others.
But instead prosecutors netted one of her close confidants Hyun Ki-hwan, a former senior secretary for political affairs. Moon intensified his impeachment campaign and Kim joined the chorus. Her desperation and stubbornness to let go of power has led her to a major misstep. Her rash offensive has backfired.
In democratic societies, presidents are elected to run the country under the guidance of its constitution and the rule of law. They should humbly step down when their time is up. But once one tastes the juice of power, one becomes addicted to the pot of greed and might have to be forced to part with it.
Democracy has long tested mankind in containing the innate substance of avarice in public service and power. Park’s disastrous mix of self-greed and public power has wreaked havoc on our society. Presidents who have contained themselves and peacefully handed over power to the next leader at the end of their term should all be honored.
President Barack Obama is one of them. Obama has provided the best example in recent decades of having well managed the transition of power in a democracy. “Democracy,” he said in a speech in Athens on Nov. 16, “can be especially complicated. But it is better than the alternatives because it allows us to peacefully work through our differences and move closer to our ideals.”
In the city where democracy was first born 2,500 years ago with a pebble stone in each citizen’s hand, the leader of the free world defended democracy, even when power is handed over to someone worrisome and questionable, because “it allows us to correct for mistakes. Any action by a president or any result of an election or any legislation that has been proven flawed can be corrected through the process of democracy.”
Freedom of the press, assembly and religion, the right not to be silent, the sovereignty of the judiciary system, of legal and civilian rights, a free and fair election system, and the separation of powers are were national power is concentrated. Obama was reassuring us that these rights are safe no matter who is at the helm of a democratic state.
“Your candidate doesn’t always win” in a free democracy, he jokingly said, pointing to the differences between him and the next American president. “Progress follows a winding path, sometimes forward and sometimes back, but as long as we retain our faith in democracy, faith in the people, as long as we don’t waver from those central principles that ensure a lively open debate, then our future will be okay.”
The democratic system Obama praised in Greece is not perfect, as he admitted himself, but it is a system of ongoing imperfection that requires constant attention, repair and replacement.
The key mechanisms that buttress democracy have done their work to stop the disproportionate balance of power in Korea. The media has exposed power abuses by Choi Soon-sil. The people have assembled on the streets to rally for the resignation of a leader who has lost their faith. The independent judiciary has challenged the administration to allow the freedom of assembly. The principle that all people, including the president, are equal before the law has been upheld.
One right — the choice of the people not to keep silent — remains vulnerable in Korean society. The right was impaired when the president handed over public power to a certain individual surnamed Choi. Park did not allow anyone to talk back against her. Her orders had to be followed without any question. In a culture of forced silence, anyone standing up to the boss and expressing a different opinion is not tolerated. They then find themselves excluded from decision-making, and soon, only the kowtowing obedient are left.
Such an organization that ridicules the public system and breeds clandestine groups will not bring about any changes to society. Forced silence does not only exist in Park’s world. Many people are forced to keep silent in their own workplaces and organizations. We could be breeding another Choi Soon-sil in our midsts.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 2, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.