The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
It’s a strange thing. Democracy is retreating in a government led by the Democratic Party (DP) and people who devoted their youth to the democratization movement, including President Moon Jae-in. Democracy begins from respecting the opinions of others. When you are hostile to anything “different,” democracy based on pluralism withers.
A special bill on finding out the truth of the May 18, 1980 Democratization Movement and punishing deniers and distorters of history is based on the idea that one group of people have a monopoly on truth and justice. It is potentially unconstitutional as it oppresses the freedom of speech. It is clearly excessive — existing laws can handle all issues involved. If it passes, anyone who goes against the sacred rules of the group with “democratization” armbands should get ready for up to seven years in jail. It is the arrogance of a party with an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly.
The May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement was a watershed moment in modern history that should be viewed from more than one angle. President Kim Young-sam stepped back after saying that punishments for presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo should be left to history. The Moon Jae-in administration’s attempt to monopolize history will fail in the end. Blocking different views is only possible in autocratic or theocratic countries. A democratic public debate with collective intelligence can filter such false claims like ones that say the North Korean military intervened.
It is also strange that controversy over distorted statistics is repeated in this administration. When bad things happened as a result of his income-led growth policies, President Moon replaced the head of Statistics Korea, and the new chief changed the survey method. Some people believe that KB Bank’s real estate division temporarily suspended its “weekly sales and lease index” because it presented numbers the government didn’t like. The same goes for punitive actions against the media. Democracy evolves creatively through free criticism of systems and policies. Without democracy, there wouldn’t have been such legendary success stories as Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor. Eliminating the grounds of criticism is killing democracy.
When the ruling power’s thinking becomes rigid, problems arise in foreign policy. The sentiment and conscience of the sovereign operates on democratic foundations open every moment. All merits of democracy disappear when the regime controls facts and criticism and traps people in its own reality.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China’s involvement in the Korean War was a just action against U.S. aggression. That is a serious distortion of fact. North Korean leader Kim Il Sung invaded the South in 1950 with approval from the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong. China gave 40,000 troops, including two Korean-Chinese divisions, to North Korea in 1949. They played a key role in the southward invasion. Simply put, Xi is transferring blame by calling the United States an aggressor and South Korea an accomplice.
China is attacking because it views South Korea as a weak link in the Korea-U.S.-Japan alliance sharing values of democracy, human rights and market economy. When asked whether Xi’s comment is a distortion of history, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said, “From our position, it is a historical distortion.” Does she mean the Korean War is a U.S. invasion from Xi’s perspective? Even Rep. Song Young-gil, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of the ruling DP, cited the need for the minister to clarify what she meant.
China is coming out tough because South Korea showed weakness. Ambassador to the United States Lee Soo-hyuck recently said, “It is an insult to the United States for us to keep an alliance without loving.” Nam Gwan-pyo, deputy director of the Blue House National Security Office in 2017 and current ambassador to Japan, even promised China the three No’s (no additional Thaad deployments, no joining of a broader U.S. missile defense system and no Korea-U.S.-Japan military alliance). In the same year, President Moon compared China to a “big mountain” while defining South Korea as a “small country.” That’s why North Korean media agree with China and mention “a war of aggression provoked by the U.S. and Syngman Rhee.”
In a meeting with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in Beijing in April 1975, Kim Il Sung said, “What can be lost is the military demarcation line and what can be gained is reunification,” conveying his intention to unify the Korean Peninsula by force and asking for China’s support. As Mao was old and Zhou sick, Deng Xiaoping was left to make the decision. Fortunately, Deng opposed it, saying that China had already put down the flag of revolution and was concentrating on building the economy. You can hardly quarrel with the Moon administration’s desire for peaceful coexistence with North Korea, but you should not be fooled by Pyongyang’s deceptions.
Park Jeong-yang (1841–1904), Korea’s first consul to the United States, took office in Washington in 1888 after overcoming persistent interference from Qing’s Yuan Shikai. Park made a big bow to President Grover Cleveland in the White House. Based on his life in America for 11 months, he wrote a report, in which he said, “This country is a nation made up by many people’s opinions and the sovereign power belongs to the people.” How do we save our collapsing democracy?