The hypocrisy of rallies and riots
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
It is disheartening to witness the country split into two. Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul — close to the government and presidential complexes — and Seocho district in southern Seoul — home to the highest court and prosecution office — are dominated by completely opposite groups on holidays or weekends. Picketers rally for the dismissal of Justice Minister Cho Kuk in downtown Seoul, while those in Seocho cry out “Save Cho Kuk” or call for prosecutorial reforms. Only one person — President Moon Jae-in — can stop this war of nerves.
But sadly, Moon has no intention to interfere. He found “positive” aspects in direct democracy where civilians have a direct say on state affairs or contentious issues, as the rallies can compensate, he believes, for the flaws in a representative democracy. He sounds as if he is speaking for one particular side. He may have been emboldened by the sight of the crowds rallying in defense of Cho in Seocho. But he is seriously wrong.
The Cho Kuk controversy has triggered a social conflict because the president has seated a person — whose family members are under prosecutorial probes and moral skepticism for questionable fund investment, suspicious management of a school foundation and his daughter’s admissions to top higher education schools — as the minister overseeing law, order and social justice. It has no relevance to representative democracy. But Moon turns blame or finds problems elsewhere without any mention of Cho. The street divide and rally cries cannot end easily.
There are clear differences in the rivaling groups. It was not just conservative representatives who were filling Gwanghwamun Square. Common citizens were also among them — middle-aged couples and young parents with children. They could not be bought to spend their precious holiday on the streets.
The Seocho rally was much more orchestrated. Banners and signboards were distributed. As many as 30 portable toilets were installed whereas there were none at Gwanghwamun. News broadcasters were provided with cranes to help their broadcasting in Seocho. The picketing looked state-sponsored.
The people in Gwanghwamun came out because they have lost patience with the impotence and hypocrisy of the Moon administration.
The president has promised “a real” country that has never been experienced before — where “opportunities are equal, processes fair and results just.” The Blue House has installed a job bulletin, but its policies have wrecked jobs and widened income inequalities. Rage is behind the rally cries in downtown Seoul.
One housewife from Incheon at the rally said “society has turned weird even in the eyes of a housewife with five kids. Nothing — the economy, security, foreign affairs and education — seems safe. My children cannot work enough under the 52-hour workweek and find part-time jobs under the income-led growth policy.” What’s most annoying is Cho’s hypocrisy and the government’s all-out defense of him, she added.
What pans out at Gwanghwamun is a kind of civic engagement movement that spread across French society in the 1940s-1950s. Social engagement is led by intellectuals speaking up against social injustice and power. Taking power to practice personal justice like Cho is not engagement. Over 10,000 university professors are exercising Jean-Paul Sartre-like engagement by demanding the removal of Cho to safeguard justice. Civilians acting out through chanting for justice on the streets are practicing social engagement.
More will have taken to the streets on Wednesday because the president and his government stay deaf to their calls for justice.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon highlighted the violence in last week’s demonstrations at Gwanghwamun. Violence should not be tolerated, but stamping out public opinions can be a bigger form of violence. Differentiating the Seocho rally as “voluntary participation” and Gwanghwamun as “rioting” is a lie and hypocrisy.
It was the people in the streets that paved the way for liberation from colonial rule and democracy against dictatorship. Moon must not think lightly of the renewed engagement movement at Gwanghwamun.