In the spring of 1980, universities in Seoul were dismantling their Korean National Defense Student Corps and creating student associations. By and large, leaders of student groups selected candidates and pushed them to run for presidents of the student associations. The political science department of Seoul National University selected its leader this way.
After a sole candidate was recommended and supported, the moderator of the meeting was about to rap a gavel to finalize the selection. A student stood up and made his opinion known. “You are studying political science,” he said, “but you are not respecting the democratic process. You are promoting a candidate you secretly decided on in advance.” That voice of dissent came from Kim Boo-kyum, the current minister of interior and safety.
The students were arrogant. They thought there was nothing wrong with pushing forward their preferred candidate. They were convinced that those who fought against the dictatorship were fundamentally righteous, while those who stood by and watched the dictatorship were sinful. Because of their moral superiority, they ignored their own dictatorial bent. They never thought they were damaging democracy.
On Oct. 11, President Moon Jae-in mentioned “procedural legitimacy and democratic legitimacy,” in discussing the conflict at Gangjeong Village on Jeju Island over the construction of a naval base. “The government failed to communicate with the residents while implementing the project,” he said. He said he will actively consider issuing presidential pardons for people arrested because they were protesting the building of the base as soon as all relevant lawsuits are discharged by courts.
The procedures Moon referred to include not only legal processes but also emotional processes. Although legal conditions were met, Moon is saying that emotional exchanges are necessary with those involved. When the decision was made by the government to build the naval base, Moon was the presidential chief of staff. Therefore, Moon’s remark was an expression of self-reflection.
In a democracy, there are no absolute rights or wrongs. Opinions can differ. Different views are not wrong and democracy respects them. A democracy is not a dictatorship of a majority that silences minority opinions just because it has met legal requirements. Political leadership is necessary in this process. But even in this liberal administration, such political compromise and a process of persuasion are hardly visible. The administration may ignore a democratic process dictated by law, but it doesn’t seem to feel guilty, perhaps because of its sense of moral superiority.
It is wrong for Moon to talk about his intention to issue a presidential pardon for the protesters. He is bypassing a legal process and he fails to respect the separation of powers. “When the Supreme Court quickly makes rulings, I believe the presidential pardon will be issued immediately,” Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said. Then, what is the purpose of having the trials? When the outcome will be a presidential pardon, which judge can make a fair ruling?
The Blue House is also giving the impression that it is reforming the judiciary. Moon demanded that suspicions of abuse of power in the judiciary be thoroughly investigated. Cho Kuk, presidential senior secretary for civil affairs, even asked the judiciary to abolish the National Court Administration for its alleged abuse of power. The prosecution’s investigations into ambiguous uses of its operational expenses sometimes conclude that they were slush funds and sometimes describes them as routine practice. It looks as if the Blue House — not the chief justice of the Supreme Court — is leading the reform process.
Moon is also high-handed toward the National Assembly. “The National Assembly should fulfill its Constitutional duties,” Moon said, urging lawmakers to approve his picks for Constitutional Court justices and ratify the Panmunjom Declaration. His efforts to persuade the people of Gangjeong Village are not seen in the National Assembly. He is clearly different from former Presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, who were advocates of parliamentarianism. Concerns are high that he may ignore the system altogether.
A cable TV show, “Mr. Sunshine,” has recently ended. It gave the public a glimpse of the tragic history of the late Joseon Dynasty. In the show, good and evil were clearly distinguished. And yet, does any character blindly helping the heroine Go Ae-shin fight for independence by resorting to extreme actions, including assassinations, really deserve applause?
The show made us compare its characters with Sakamoto Ryoma. During the time of enlightenment in Japan, he came to abandon the philosophy of “revere the emperor and expel the barbarians!” to embrace ideas from the West. During the late Joseon period, did we only have bad people who had never contemplated what they should do?
In the dichotomy of good and evil, there is no place for contemplation, exploration, compromise and cooperative politics. Those who loathed the violence of a system forget the memory when they seize power. They fail to see if they are actually walking into the same trap as those they fiercely loathed once they take power. In that sense, our political leaders could learn some lessons from Deng Xiaoping’s calm yet pioneering approach to open a new path for China.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 15, Page 31