Moon’s petitions are hit with Korean public
Lee Yoo-young, the mother of a 13-year-old girl, spends much of her time checking the number of signatures on a petition to the Blue House that her acquaintance posted on June 18.
The petition, entitled “Please close down Young Poong Smelting Factory located at the upper region of Nakdong River,” accuses a local factory of environmental pollution.
Lee moved to Bonghwa County, in North Gyeongsang, 50 kilometers (31 miles) northeast of the factory, and settled in a farming town surrounded by mountains and streams last month with her daughter.
“I moved down here just with my daughter, leaving my husband up in Seoul, to treat my daughter’s eczema,” she said. “My daughter’s skin condition got so bad that it has led to other problems, like depression. We settled here in Bonghwa for its clean air and water.”
But not long after they arrived, Lee discovered that there was a smelting factory on the upper stream of the Nakdong River that locals and environmental civic groups blame for polluting the river, a source of drinking water in the Gyeongsang region.
Lee is one of many South Koreans pinning their hopes on the Blue House’s petition board - believing that someone, if not President Moon Jae-in himself, will pay heed to their concerns.
And the number is growing fast. Since the Blue House started the petition board last August, benchmarking the White House petition board in the name of communicating with the people, more than 220,000 petitions have been registered and nearly 700 new ones are submitted daily.
This allows the Blue House to lead the national discussion on its domestic agenda and pull the public and media’s attention away from the National Assembly, which is supposed to do the job of listening to constituents’ demands.
The Blue House promises to give a formal response to petitions that have received 200,000 signatures or more in one month. (The White House requires 100,000 signatures in two months to formally address a petition.)
Public reaction to the petition system has been strong, riding on the high approval rating of President Moon. It is still hovering around 70 percent, an unprecedented feat for a South Korean president second year into office.
The public’s low level of trust in the National Assembly is also turning many to seek help from the Blue House. Korea’s parliament received the lowest level of trust, 15 percent, among all state institutions in a Gallup Korea poll conducted last year.
“I have no intention of contacting a lawmaker from my region, because I have no trust in the National Assembly,” said Lee.
So far, 41 petitions have gotten 200,000 signatures or more and 36 have been formally addressed by the Blue House with answers in the form of videos, all posted on YouTube, accompanied by transcripts.
The topics of petitions already addressed by the Blue House ranged from calls to abolish anti-abortion laws, to shut down a far-right internet portal and to revoke the broadcasting license for TV Chosun, a cable channel known for its hard-line stance on the Moon government.
There are five petitions awaiting a Blue House response. One is a call to change the refugee law passed in 2013 that has led to an influx of over 500 Yemeni asylum seekers on Jeju Island, which has earned over 500,000 signatures in less than a month.
The petition system has proven popular, but some petitions are malicious and others are just silly. After the South Korean national team’s loss to Sweden in its first World Cup match, a string of petitions emerged demanding some players be expelled from the national team for their disappointing performances.
When Korean speed skater Kim Bo-reum was embroiled in a controversy over a remark that sounded like she was blaming a teammate for a loss in the women’s team pursuit at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, a petition demanding Kim be stripped of her athletic qualification received more than 600,000 signatures.
Kim and her mother were hospitalized for psychological treatment after the Olympics because of the stress.
“What worries me about the petition board is that it could be misused as an outlet for fake news, or a venting of anger or disgust against a particular group of people, rather than a platform to make rightful demands to the government,” said Shin Jang-sik, secretary general of the minor progressive Justice Party, which has six lawmakers in the 300-member legislature.
“The Blue House needs to toughen up its filtering ability to prevent hate speech and fake news.” He said the petition about the refugee law describes asylum seekers as a potential threat to the fabric of society.
The Blue House monitors petitions for foul language or defamation after they are posted.
A petitioner has to log in through social networks such as Facebook but his or her name is not revealed to the public. Ko Min-jung, a deputy Blue House spokesperson, told the Korea JoongAng Daily that she was aware of the issue of petitions vilifying individuals.
“We have been exploring ways to address such problems,” she said. But after all, Ko, a former news anchor, said the Blue House had a faith in the “collective wisdom of the masses.”
“While the current system is not entirely free of problems, I nevertheless think the collective wisdom of the masses is working,” she emphasized.
“When a petition against Kim Bo-reum appeared, there were also many views that it was out of line to demand Kim be stripped of her qualification as a player. I have confidence in people’s ability to draw a logical conclusion through collective discussion.
“Taking down the petition board,” Ko continued, “would be like taking away a microphone that people now have in their hands to make their voices heard regardless of their social status or age.”
For those involved in the legislature, the popularity of the Blue House’s petition board is a grim reminder of the eroding esteem of their own institution.
“Lawmakers bear the brunt of responsibility for people going to the Blue House’s petition board over lawmakers’ office,” said Shin of the Justice Party.
“A political party’s system should be spread like blood vessels to the body on a local level to make people feel its functionality and mission. Instead, politicians on local councils and local party politics have failed to live up to their mission.”
BY KANG JIN-KYU [firstname.lastname@example.org]