A gag order revived

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A gag order revived

Kwon Hyuk-joo
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


I remember reading a North Korean research document about 30 years ago. It started with something like: “This research was carried out according to the orders of the Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung.” It was an academic study to prove the point of the policy of the leader and praise his vision.

What took place in North Korea 30 years ago is somehow happening in South Korea today. Experts are scorned and their research is often trashed by politicians and leaders if they do not agree with their policies or platforms. Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung made the most extreme case. He jumped at a study by the Korea Institute of Public Finance (KIPF), that pointed to side effects of local currencies. Lee called the researchers “morons” and “old hats” who should be “strictly reprimanded.” He took it personally as an avid champion of local currencies to stimulate spending and aid local businesses in his province.

Research works have often been snubbed under the Moon Jae-in administration. The Korea Energy Economics Institute (KEEI) could not publish its monthly World Nuclear Market Insight because it included a report by Jeong Yong-hoon, a professor of nuclear and quantum engineering at KAIST, who criticized the government’s nuclear phase-out plan. In the preface, the professor argued that if South Korea extends the life span of a nuclear reactor by 20 years — as the United States did — instead of decommissioning it once its original design life ends, billions of dollars could be saved.

The journal, due on Dec. 13 last year, did not get uploaded on the website. Two months later, some media reported that the KEEI decided not to publish it online. It is now back online. During the period, another public think tank, Korea Environmental Industry & Technology Institute, published a column that argued nuclear reactors should be used to meet commitments to greenhouse gas emission control in line with the global trend and later removed it from its website.

The mishap has even reached the private sector. A report by Hana Financial Investment released last month disappeared. It said bank shareholders have become fatigued because banks have been mobilized to back the government’s New Deal Fund. The report that was published on its home page got removed a few days later. One insider anonymously wrote that the bank received a call from the Finance Ministry and the presidential office.

Whether a New Deal Fund, nuclear phase-out or local currency, if a policy shows problems in its design or execution, it should be addressed. Experts must share their opinions through scientific reasoning and analysis. It’s why state think tanks exist. The KIPF only did its work. But Gov. Lee attacked it with emotion rather than logic. Even Joo Jing-hyung of the Open Democratic Party, which is aligned to the ruling party, advocated for the KIPF, saying it only did its part as a public research institute.

Experts are being disregarded. They are scorned if they say the wrong things. Ruling party politicians are turning more and more brazen. After the prosecution concluded no wrongdoings by Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and her son in its investigation into allegations about the son receiving special favor during his military service, Choo lashed out at the media to “apologize” for misreporting, threatening to take punitive actions. She was hardly remorseful for lying. The bigwigs in the ruling party who fought against authoritarian governments during their student days are now acting like a military regime.
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