NGOs' tightness with administration causes concernsConcerns are growing that many non-governmental organizations have been co-opted by the Moon Jae-in administration, which gave their leaders top posts in the government, the Blue House and the ruling party.
“Civic groups are supposed to work as a watchdog over the powers that be, but they have become pipelines supplying top officials to this administration,” said Ka Sang-joon, a professor of political science at Dankook University.
In November 2017, six months into Moon’s presidency, eight of the 51 members of the presidential secretariat were from civic groups. Several reshuffles have taken place since, but nine members of the current secretariat are former activists.
Moon favored members of the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) when he named top aides. Jang Ha-sung, the first policy chief of the Moon Blue House, his predecessor Kim Su-hyun and the current policy chief Kim Sang-jo all came from the PSPD.
Cho Kuk, who served as senior presidential secretary for civil affairs before becoming justice minister for a tumultuous 35 days, was also a senior leader of the PSPD.
The ruling party's key reforms are PSPD ideas. A plan to establish a new investigative agency for senior public servants, intended to weaken the power of the prosecution, has been promoted by the civic group since 1996. The Democratic Party (DP) succeeded in passing a bill to launch the agency late last year.
Many members of liberal NGOs were elected lawmakers for the DP in the April 15 general elections. Of the 176 DP lawmakers, 20 are from civic groups.
Among the first-term lawmakers are Kim Nam-kuk, a member of the Lawyers for a Democratic Society, also known as Minbyun, and Yang-yi Won-young, a member of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement.
Rep. Kim Sang-hee, who won her fourth-term in April and was elected National Assembly deputy speaker, is from the Korean Women Link.
Rep. Nam In-soon, a three-term lawmaker of the DP, is from the Korean Women's Association United. She is leading the campaign to defend Yoon Mee-hyang, former head of an advocacy group for comfort women and a proportional lawmaker for the DP, who is being investigated for having allegedly exploited the survivors for 30 years. Yoon is the former head of the of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.
Human rights groups and women’s groups have long been critical of conservative administrations, but they have been tight lipped about corruption scandals involving key members of the Moon administration such as Cho and Yoon. They also were largely silent when Oh Keo-don, mayor of Busan, recently stepped down after confessing to sexually assaulting a city employee.
“As contrasted with the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, civic groups have become parasites of power in the Moon administration,” said Kim Kyung-yul, a former senior leader of the PSPD. Kim headed the PSPD's Center for Economic and Financial Justice, but left the group after criticizing former Justice Minister Cho and his supporters last September. Before his departure, the PSPD rebuked Kim for criticizing Cho.
Liberal activists outside the administration often defend the administration rather than criticize it. Woo Hee-jong, a professor of veterinary science at Seoul National University, and Choi Bae-geun, an economics professor at KonKuk University, founded a satellite party of the DP, the Citizen Party, before the April election. Their party produced 17 proportional lawmakers, including Yoon. The lawmakers later joined the DP, giving the ruling party control of 177 seats in the 300-member legislature.
After the Yoon scandal broke out, Choi and Woo became fierce critics of the prosecution and media. Woo compared media reports and prosecution investigations to a modern-day witch hunt.
Woo and Choi are both from civic groups. Woo is currently a co-chair of the Korean Sharing Movement and Choi had served as the head of the Hanam Democracy Solidarity.
“Civic groups are supposed to keep the administration in check, but they are actually forming an alliance with the administration,” said Lee Jun-han, a professor of political science at Incheon National University. “Oversight and checks are the fundamental reason for civic groups’ existence, and they are destroying it.”
BY KIM HYO-SEONG, SER MYO-JA [email@example.com]