Walking the walk

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Walking the walk


Ahn Kyong-whan, nominee for justice minister, at a press conference Friday at the Korea Legal Aid Corporation in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul, apologizes for various ethical breaches, including forging a woman’s signature on a marriage registration. [YONHAP]

Ahn Kyong-whan, nominee for justice minister, bowed out before he was further disgraced in the process of being confirmed. He may have gotten himself out of the frying pan but the Blue House is still sizzling. The public’s high expectations for the new liberal government have been shaken. People are beginning to doubt the capabilities and honesty of this Blue House even at such an early stage. The fiasco over Ahn should be seen as a valuable lesson for the ruling power. It is better to learn this lesson now rather than later.

Ahn’s case exposed weaknesses in the Blue House appointments system. It underestimated the unfavorable factors in the appointment and pinned too many hopes on the positives. Then it tried to avoid accountability by simply chopping off the irksome tail. These kind of errors can build.

Ahn’s biggest controversy stemmed from a complicated love affair when he was in his 20s. According to accounts by law department alumni from Seoul National University, Ahn lived with a woman for a year. When they separated, he admitted to forging the woman’s seal on the official marriage record, allowing it to be nullified. The story can be romanticized as a man freeing a woman he once loved to allow her a fresh start without the stigma of divorce. But in legal terms, he broke the law and lied to a court in order to undo the marriage.

Such a breach of the law is a fatal defect in a person charged with overseeing reforms to a criminal justice system with 2,000 state prosecutors. In his memoir, he wrote that doom — not success — awaits a scholar who joins politics. You have to give him credit for prescience.

It is the duty of the Blue House’s senior presidential secretary for civil affairs to draw the line in appointments. It is unclear what role secretary Cho Kuk played. Cho could have modified the story to make it look like Ahn was saving a woman from the stigma of divorce during the more strict patriarchic days of the 1970s.

Ahn said he had explained his past when he was tapped as the head of the Human Rights Commission under President Roh Moo-hyun in 2006. He and Cho taught together at the Seoul National University law school from 2002. In the paperwork given to the National Assembly confirmation hearing, Ahn said he had nullified the marriage with his first wife. It does not make sense that Cho was not aware of Ahn’s past. It is possible that Cho simply didn’t take Ahn’s past seriously enough.

It is also possible that Cho could not protest the appointment of Ahn, who, after all, had assisted Moon Jae-in’s legal defense team for President Roh at the Constitutional Court trial on the legislative impeachment motion in 2003.

The Blue House may have been blinded by a bias favoring reform-minded and progressive people. When the controversy boiled over, the Blue House announced that it did not know of Ahn’s marital history. It is suspected of trying to avoid responsibility. Before it dumped Ahn, it should have admitted its mistake and apologized to the public. Cho could make similar slip-ups if he does not sharpen his processing of information collection, judgment and assuming a proper sense of responsibility.

There’s an ancient Chinese saying that the virtuous always speak the right words, but speaking the rights words does not always make one virtuous. Before he joined the presidential staff, Cho had a reputation for frankness. But a presidential secretary must not just talk the talk. He must walk the walk as well.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 19, Page 30.

*The author is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Chun Young-gi
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