The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Yoon Mee-hyang, an advocate for wartime sexual slavery survivors, apparently enjoyed a lot of power. No one had oversight over her, although she deposited public donations into her own bank accounts, offered a job and contracts to her father and husband, made a suspicious real estate deal for a shelter in Anseong, Gyeonggi, and even allowed a large amount of public donations go missing. Someone must have heard whispers about Yoon exploiting the victims for her own gain and acting like a despot. But no one raised the issues.
After serving as head of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, Yoon became chairwoman of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, an upgraded civic group. She is now a proportional representative-elect for the ruling Democratic Party. Yoon must have been a role model for activists. She must have enjoyed the golden time of her life.
The scandal started by bombshell revelations from a survivor, Lee Yong-soo, that she had been exploited for decades. But the core of the problem is the corruption of the civic activism that has become a shortcut to a successful career. Although conservative administrations were criticized for having formed cozy relationships with civic groups such as the New Right Movement, such ties were particularly noticeable in the liberal administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun and most controversially in the administration of Moon Jae-in. By monopolizing issues such as human rights, democracy, justice, feminism and the environment, our civic groups became powers themselves. Whenever the government reshuffles its top officials, civic activists are often appointed to powerful posts, demonstrating a remarkable shift of power.
A public servant suggested a clue to why Yoon was free from any oversight. “No public servant or company is brave enough to criticize a civic group friendly with the government,” he said. “If you attack them, you will be labeled an ‘accumulated evil.’ You have to treat them as if they were your boss. You never know when they can become your minister or vice minister.”
To join the new power elite, you need a title from civic groups such as the Korean Council, the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) or the Lawyers for a Democratic Society. Former Minister of Gender Equality and Family Ji Eun-hee and Lee Mi-kyung, the current head of the Korea International Cooperation Agency, are both from the Korean Council.
The PSPD produced many top officials in the Moon administration. The post of Moon’s policy chief in the Blue House was held by three former members of the PSPD. Other members of PSPD are serving as presidential secretaries. Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul are also from the PSPD.
After serving as heads of the Lawyers for a Democratic Society, Kim Sun-soo and Lee Seok-tae were named Supreme Court and Constitutional Court justices. Choe Kang-wook, former presidential aide elected as a proportional lawmaker, also came from the PSPD. That’s not all. Civic activists are serving in countless posts in the government and state-run commissions. The non-governmental groups have emerged as the new power elite in Korea.
It is an extremely unique phenomenon that activists have become power elite. They are championing this as “engagement.” Although there have been engagements of intellectuals in the United States and Europe, it is unprecedented to see that activists — whose political independence is important — belong to a certain political power group. Special treatment often produces corrupt deals. Turning a blind eye to an administration’s corruption is an unspoken rule — just like the Japanese habit of trying to read the boss’s intentions and act in advance.
The past three years of the Moon presidency show that liberal civic groups have mostly shrugged off the administration’s unfair appointments and political retaliation against the previous administrations. They remain silent about not only the Cho Kuk crisis, but also the suspicion that South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyung-soo manipulated online opinion before the 2017 presidential election, the Blue House’s alleged influence over the Ulsan mayoral election and Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don’s sexual abuse scandal.
They used the black-and-white logic of distinguishing friends and foes and supported the administration. The PSPD’s motto is “oversight and check on power.” But it was an empty slogan.
The liberals are using that logic once again to protect Yoon in the latest scandal. They claim any doubting of Yoon and the Korean Council is a conspiracy of Japanese collaborators. The Korean Council is flooded with other civic groups’ support messages. They argue that the pro-Japan, anti-human rights and anti-peace forces are trying to deny history by picking on a “small, honest mistake” committed by the council.
In Monday’s second press conference, Lee, the survivor, tearfully said, “They have exploited the victims whose lives were devastated by Japan’s wartime sexual slavery. Yoon must be held accountable.” She expressed her rage toward Yoon’s hypocrisy and immorality and demanded an apology.
The latest scandal is questioning the raison d’être of civic groups. After tasting the sweetness of power, the civic groups have gained such strong comradeship with the Moon administration that they became enslaved by the government. As their political neutrality disappeared, their roles as watchdogs came to an end.
A collaboration between an administration that wants to nurture civic groups as power elite and the civic group that wants the success of the administration is a path to mutual destruction. Civic groups that have forgotten the spirit of resistance must end their operations because service to the government and liberalism cannot coexist. They must end their illicit dealings with the government before they are labeled liberal civic groups at the service of the administration.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 26, Page 31