Deaf to the cries
The author is chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The recent tragedy of two young brothers in Incheon revealed a hidden depth of the Covid-19 crisis. The boys, aged 10 and eight, are in critical condition after receiving burns all over their bodies in an accident while trying to cook a bowl of instant noodles on Sept. 19. Their mother — a single parent from a household that receives assistance from the local government to meet the minimum standard of living — was out and their school was shut due to the Covid-19 outbreaks. On some days, the young boys had no chance to eat anything at all.
Although the country is suffering from the pandemic and the people’s livelihoods are in crisis, the 21st National Assembly’s first regular session was all about the alleged special treatment offered to Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s son during his military service three years ago. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun begged the lawmakers to discuss state affairs, but his appeal was ignored.
During the four-day Q&A session, lawmakers concentrated their efforts on attacking — or defending — Rep. Park Sung-jun, spokesman for the ruling Democratic Party (DP), which fueled public rage by saying that Choo’s son was following the philosophy of national hero Ahn Jung-geun, an independence fighter from colonial days.
The family of Ahn’s descendents made public a fierce protest of Rep. Park’s comments and accused him of exploiting their honorable ancestor. The opposition People Power Party (PPP) managed to reveal the hypocrisy and high-handedness of the justice minister. But was it worth doing nothing but attacking Choo?
No lawmaker pointed out the local government’s failure to prevent the tragedy of the young boys, or the gaping loopholes in our social safety net. That shows a type of politics that has neither the ability nor the intention to understand the pain of the vulnerable.
In the face of the Covid-19 crisis, the socially weak are groaning. Social distancing is affecting both the rich and the poor, but bankruptcies and closures of businesses, unemployment and income reductions are worst for the vulnerable populations such as the self-employed and contract workers. The tragedy of the young boys testifies to their bottomless sufferings.
The colosseum of the National Assembly and the palace of the Blue House do not hear the screams of the young boys. The people are enraged by the brazen justice minister. Despite its need to find fault with the justice minister’s arrogant attitude in the legislature, the main opposition party is no better than the DP as it gave up on a number of urgent issues involving people’s livelihoods amid the pandemic-triggered crisis.
The Moon administration must learn a lesson from a woman in cyberspace, who uses the nickname “Samhoeomuk” and has no reservations about criticizing the government’s real estate policy. A 39-year-old lecturer with a young child, she said she used to be a student activist when she was a college student and lived in various types of cheap housing such as a basement apartment, a rooftop home and a tiny dormitory room until she was married.
“The Moon administration attempts to present resolutions even without studying the problems of the real estate market and people’s livelihoods. It only presents policies to serve its own ideology … The biggest problem is that it does not accept the natural desires of humans and treats them as if they are sins,” she said in a Kakao Talk interview with the Chosun Ilbo. When Moon insisted that housing prices are being stabilized as the real estate measures are having an effect, she proved that it was simply a delusion.
Rep. Jang Hye-young, a lawmaker from the left-wing Justice Party, proposed that the government levy a 5-percent tax on people whose incomes increased after the Covid-19 pandemic in order to raise a 10 trillion won ($8.6 billion) fund to help those suffering from the crisis. SoCar CEO Lee Jae-woong said he supports the idea. At least, the direction of the plan is right from an ethical perspective. If this plan is realized, Guy Sorman, who once called Korea a “brutal society,” will probably change his view.
Socrates did not live a reclusive life. He served as an Athenian hoplite during the Peloponnesian War. With shabby clothes on, he talked to the people on streets, in markets and plazas of Athens. When he had a tough question, he stopped and started thinking on the spot.
Politicians in Korea, however, are hiding inside their own ghettos of familiar ideologies and fighting tribal wars against each other that have nothing to do with people’s livelihoods. The ruling party is led by the faction of Moon loyalists while the opposition party is led by extreme rightists. This is the politics of zero productivity.
We must work together to cope with the Covid-19 crisis. The tolerance of the liberals and the prudence of the conservatives are both necessary.
The Moon administration faces a dilemma: if it chooses to save the economy and protect the working class, its preventive measures will hardly work. And if it reinforces social distancing, the people’s livelihoods will collapse. The tragedy of the two young boys presented the dilemma to the government.
The ruling and opposition parties must come out from their own ghettos of hatred. They must stand together to confront the people’s pain and tears. Only then can they hear the two boys’ cries for help. They must find a realistic compromise and unite. If they refuse, we will all collapse together.