On a high horse

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On a high horse

Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


When Native American tribes hold rainmaking ceremonies, rains come. It is not because the ritual is effective in itself, but because they keep holding the ceremony until it succeeds.

That logic works for some “bad” investigations. Prosecutors rigorously investigate a suspect until they find something fishy. Many dirty tricks are used, and the suspect, crushed by humiliations and insults, lets a prosecutor-turned-lawyer, who supposedly has a connection with the prosecutor, defend his or her case. This is the structure of an evil culture that assures that having money leads to an acquittal while not having money leads to a conviction. When political intentions are factored into the situation, everything becomes uncontrollable. That is why we need reform of the prosecution.

And yet the Moon Jae-in administration completely flubbed this incredibly important issue. Skepticism is growing about the intention of launching the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO). The Moon administration did everything it could to prevent Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl from investigating the president’s inner circle, rather than protecting the human rights of the people. It took just 16 hours for Moon to approve Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae’s recommendation to suspend Yoon from active duty for two months.

Judge Hong Sun-wuk of the Seoul Central District Court recently decided to grant an injunction to halt the suspension, which is the judiciary’s serious judgement call of the president’s actions. As Moon’s authority was disrespected, the administration’s justification for reforming the prosecution also disappeared. Simply put, the president has invited this crisis upon no one but himself.

The problem is that the administration’s countermeasures against the Covid-19 pandemic failed as it was focusing its attention on removing the top prosecutor. As the United States and 27 European Union member nations started vaccinations, they are expected to have herd immunity during the first half of next year. Korea missed the timing to purchase Covid-19 vaccines, so its people have to suffer until the end of next year. Moon ordered his aides to “secure vaccines from overseas” in late September — after major countries already put in orders with vaccine companies.

Korea University Medical School Professor Kim Woo-joo urged the government to establish some legal ground for advance orders of vaccines. That advice was ignored. After the administration facing withering criticism, Sohn Young-rae, a senior health official, said, “The commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency [KDCA] has the final authority to fix vaccine purchases.” Concerns are growing that KDCA head Jung Eun-kyeong will become the scapegoat.

Jung Ki-suk, former head of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), trained 34 epidemiologists after the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015 and introduced a rapid test kit. His accomplishments greatly helped the country cope with the current crisis. However, he said that no one from the Moon administration had ever asked for his advice.

Former President Lee Myung-bak’s approach during the novel influenza A (H1N1) pandemic in April 2009 was different. “When we pre-ordered 10 million doses of Oseltamivir [better known as Tamiflu], Welfare and Health Minister Jeon Jae-hee and head of the KCDCP Lee Jong-koo visited the Blue House and faced tough questions from the president,” said Jeon Byung-ryul, who succeeded Dr. Lee Jong-koo to head the KCDC in 2011. “President Lee, then, authorized 250 billion won [$227.9 million] for the purchases.”

After Korea purchased Tamiflu from other countries, the epidemic was smoothly controlled around November.

Since Moon took office, the administration only adhered to abstract concepts of governance for three years and half and accomplished nothing. Its income-led growth, higher minimum wage, real estate and nuclear phase-out policies all failed. Even foreign policy failed. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, ignored by her Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi as a mere “decoration,” is still serving in her post. No wonder there are no accomplishments. And yet, no one in the Blue House is taking responsibility for Kang or anything else.

The fundamental problem is Moon’s belief in his own infallibility. He thinks he and his allies are always just — and therefore always right — and this unrealistic belief is isolating him. After Cho Kuk stepped down from the justice minister post, Moon said during this year’s New Year’s press conference, “I am greatly indebted to him.” Moon does not understand public sentiment. That is why his loyalists are attacking the prosecution and the judiciary for jointly staging a “judicial coup.” They are threatening to impeach the prosecutor general in the National Assembly — possibly even making him more of a victim than they have already.

Napoleon Bonaparte — who shook the feudal order of Europe after the French Revolution and promoted rule of law and citizens’ equality before the law — was praised by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher, as “this world-soul on horseback” or “die Weltseele zu Pferde.”

On the eve of a court ruling on his move to suspend the prosecutor general, President Moon invited top government and judiciary officials, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myung-soo, to the Blue House for a meeting. Moon mistakenly believed he was an absolute ruler on horseback and made an inappropriate invitation that crossed the constitutional boundary of the separation of powers.

In 21st century Korea, we need a friendly leader, not an absolute ruler on horseback. We need the return of a democratic leadership that can communicate with intelligent people and experts, not politicians and officials intoxicated by their lust for power. As long as the administration is using prosecution reforms and Covid-19 prevention measures to realize its plan for long-term power, nothing can be resolved. This unfamiliar absolute ruler on horseback will never be able to save us.
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