Democracy without brakes
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Quite frequently, the Moon Jae-in administration’s words and actions don’t match up. It easily abandons its promises to the people and it does not hesitate to make new, unfeasible promises. The administration treats the people with arrogance because it won power thanks to the incompetence of opposition parties. We are seeing a crisis of democracy.
Many close to the government say that Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, whose power has been weakened, should be removed. Will Yoon become the first target of an investigation by the Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials (CIO), which will launch soon?
Yoon has investigated and indicted two former presidents, one former Supreme Court chief justice and four former heads of the National Intelligence Service (NIS). He was an “upright prosecutor” who endured a demotion during the Park Geun-hye administration for his investigation into the spy agency’s alleged manipulation of online comments to help Park win the election.
When he appointed Yoon as prosecutor general last year, Moon urged him to not be swayed by outside pressure. Yoon believed in the president’s words and investigated Cho Kuk, a close confident of the president, and sent Cho’s wife to prison over allegations about their family. Now, the administration calls Yoon a traitor.
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) and the administration pushed forward a plan to establish the CIO to investigate top government officials, not powerless former officials from the past administrations. They are now attempting to use the CIO to punish Yoon for his unbiased probes into the Moon administration. The president’s words and actions just don’t match.
The DP abruptly proposed that the country’s administrative capital be moved to Sejong City to help curb soaring real estate prices in the capital region despite the fact that such a relocation calls for long and meticulous planning. The plan was already ruled unconstitutional 16 years ago, but the DP is pushing it — without any prior research or public debate.
Moon didn’t even keep his first presidential pledge that he would move his office to a location near Gwanghwamun Square, which is only several hundred meters away from the Blue House. How could this administration possibly amend the Constitution and relocate the administrative capital as it wishes?
Easing the overpopulation of the capital region and prompting balanced development of the country are necessary, but a makeshift plan will only bring about problems. Is the DP repeating President Roh Moo-hyun’s strategy of winning votes with the pledge of the administrative capital relocation to win the next presidential election?
The National Assembly — where the DP is chairing all 18 standing committees after its landslide victory in the April 15 parliamentary election — became an abnormal monopoly by the DP. Civic groups and scholars who are supposed to keep the government in check became its allies.
The administration and the DP are covering up sexual harassment allegations against the late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon — who also created the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy — and corruption charges against Rep. Yoon Mee-hyang, who led the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.
As the government and civic groups join forces, political diversity disappeared. As a result, Moon can run the country without anyone stopping him.
The CIO is a powerful investigation arm. It can investigate suspected crimes of a president, lawmakers, local government heads, judges, prosecutors, as well as their families. The prosecution and the police have a duty to inform the CIO of suspected crimes as soon as they are aware of them. Many speculate that the head of the CIO will become the second most powerful person after the president.
A seven-member candidate recommendation committee is supposed to recommend two candidates for the head of the CIO to the president to choose from, and it requires six votes of the seven committee members to become candidates. The opposition United Future Party (UFP) has two seats on the committee, which allows it to exercise veto power.
But the DP said it will change the law to reduce the UFP’s seat to one. That will allow the president to name anyone he wants as the head of the CIO. Then the prosecutor general will become a paper tiger.
If the CIO is used to go after only opposition parties and opponents — not the administration and the DP — its existence loses legitimacy. “Korea’s presidential system, where the president exercises strong powers, has a high risk of turning into autocracy,” warned Korea University Emeritus Professor Choi Jang-jip. “As the law on the CIO has a high possibility of serving the president, it could end up systematizing despotic rule.”
Members of the administration led the democratization movement. Ironically, they are now causing a crisis in our democracy. They must stop their dangerous attempt. They must respect the separation of powers, since it is a universal principle to prevent abuse of state powers by keeping checks and balances.
Public sentiment is clearly alarmed and the popularity of the president is fading. Moon has less than two years left in his term. He must not make the mistake of covering up his political failures with more failures. Democracy must be preserved.