The fall of Korean conservatismThe upcoming presidential election in Korea dominated dinner conversations over Lunar New Year. Another hot topic was the antigraft law known as the Kim Young-ran Law. The economy is struggling with sinking consumer sentiment and demographic challenges. Holiday gifts were noticeably scarce.
The antigraft law places limits on gifts to public officials and was first conceived under Lee Myung-bak’s administration. Lee institutionalized the Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission, and its first job was to draw up a law to prevent civil servants from being caught in conflicts of interest and root out corruption. The first commissioner, Lee Jae-oh, scrapped the plan, saying it wasn’t possible. His successor, the law’s namesake Kim Young-ran, revived the agenda with backing from the current president, Park Geun-hye.
For some reason, Park had a knee-jerk aversion to anything her predecessor was involved with or did and kept the law alive. She must have wanted to take credit for it since she was lacking meaningful achievements on the domestic front. The law, just 100 days in the making, was back on the table.
But now, the ruling conservative party has joined the chorus of voices blaming the law for worsening domestic demand, even though it should have been well aware of the expected side effects.
Despite the law’s noble and ambitious cause, it has become a target of ridicule and scorn. The law was not designed to impose Dutch splitting of bills and keeping public officials from eating meals that cost more than 30,000 won. The key point of the law was rooting out illicit solicitations and to make society clean and fair. That is why it still has support from 85 percent of the population. But the law started off on the wrong foot. Its chief sponsor, the president, is ironically facing bribery charges. This puts the police in an awkward place.
There is another law under the current administration facing backlash. The city of Sejong, the country’s administrative center, came into being with Park’s support. Public officials were nicknamed road officials because they were always darting back and forth between Seoul and Sejong on two-hour commutes. Officials who avoided meeting people in fear of breaking the antigraft law spent lonely nights in cheap karaoke bars since many of their families remained in Seoul. Park could have imagined the scene. She said distance would not matter since meetings could be done through video conferences. But she has never presided over a video conference.
Another major distortion under the incumbent administration was the National Assembly Advancement Law that reintroduced the filibuster to prevent bills from being railroaded by a majority. The law was aimed to institutionalize a political culture of dialogue and compromise. But Park’s insolent governing style made that impossible. She pushed ahead with controversial laws contested by majority lawmakers and took an emotional stand against anyone critical of her moves. The result was chaos. All the bills that were heavily challenged by the legislature had to be referred to courts to determine their legitimacy. The Kim Young-ran Law and National Assembly Advancement Law also came under review by the Constitutional Court.
The ever-bickering legislature, the impotent administration and dysfunction in the networks of public officials, teachers and journalists who fall under the Kim Young-ran Law should all be blamed on the narrow-minded rightist Park. She has no other deeds to take credit for. The primary job of an army intelligence officer is said to have been delivering piles of reports to the president here and there because she was often out of her office. It turns out she was busy having tea with a strange circus of people whose ringleader was Choi Soon-sil. Park, however, claims all accusations against her are “a mountain of lies.”
The city of Sejong and National Assembly Advancement Law are not in tune with traditional conservative stances. They are just by-products of populism. Conservatives demand loyalty and confidence in the nation and its establishments. Conservative leaders must set an example. A person who wrecked the country cannot talk of patriotism and innocence. She is extinguishing the flickering light of the conservative movement. Ban Ki-moon, the former UN secretary general, did not end his presidential ambitions in just three weeks because he was a naïve diplomat.
There is a saying that conservatives are ruined by corruption and liberals by division. But there never was a conservative leader so corrupt, incompetent and deceiving. If conservatives fall, they could knock down even the liberals. If Park really meant it when she said she was married to the country and became a politician to restore the reputation of her father, she must step aside for the conservatives to recover themselves. She is blocking the way with her own mountain of lies.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 3, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.