The pardon problem
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Talk about a worst-case scenario. In an editorial entitled “A moment of grave danger for U.S. democracy,” published on Jan. 5, the Financial Times wrote, “Extraordinary as it may seem, what amounts to an undeclared coup d’état is being attempted in the United States.” The next day, a bloody battle took place. A mob of thousands of supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol to block the planned congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. The moment President Trump, the supposed protector of the Constitution, called them “great patriots,” U.S. democracy was dealt a serious blow.
In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville was astonished by the democracy in the relatively young country, where no discrimination by class existed. At the same time, he wrote in “Democracy in America,” that “I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the very inadequate securities which exist against tyranny.” That was an amazing foresight.
The crisis in America is caused by mainstream politics in Washington, which remained insensitive to the polarization of the world following globalization. Incoming President Biden understands the suffering of minorities especially those of lower-income and the Black community. Yet, his top aides are still lobbyists from Wall Street and the corporate world. Jeff Hauser of the liberal thinktank Center for Economic and Policy Research said, “The problem Biden has is, he views people he got to know before they were lobbyists as still not lobbyists.” The era of division won’t end easily.
What about the situation on the Korean Peninsula? Pains of the wealth gap have worsened due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Piketty coefficient, an indicator of inequality, is actually skyrocketing under the liberal Moon jae-in administration. As if the confrontation with North Korea is not enough, internal conflicts are heated in the South. Meanwhile, former Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye were convicted of “accumulated evils” and imprisoned. The conservatives are determined to win the next presidency and send Moon to prison.
It is no wonder that the country has to start over every five years as if it were a newborn state. After talented people are all purged for their associations with previous administrations, there are no available people to serve in top posts. As incompetent flatterers are serving in those posts, the Moon administration’s abilities at home and abroad are the worst ever.
Ruling Democratic Party (DP) Chairman Lee Nak-yon said, “For the sake of unity, I will propose to the president to issue special pardons to Lee and Park,” and the Blue House said it is willing to talk about it. Hard-line Moon supporters protested that they will come to power again and “destroy” democracy if they are so easily forgiven.
If the idea of issuing special pardons to two former conservative presidents has an intention of political engineering to divide the opposition party, the administration and the DP must withdraw it. It is absurd for Moon to only pardon Park, because that will be an admission that the administration had oppressed Lee politically based on the Roh Moo-hyun loyalists’ rage that Lee caused Roh to commit suicide.
The Moon administration must remember the philosophy of the late President Kim Dae-jung. He was sentenced to death by the Chun Doo Hwan junta in 1980. “I was so fearful that I even got scared by the sound of a footstep outside the door,” Kim once said. In his final statement in the courtroom, Kim said, “I hope political retaliation will never exist in this country.”
It was the United States that saved Kim from the hands of strongman Chun. Outgoing President Jimmy Carter requested President-elect Ronald Reagan to save Kim. As Chun desperately wanted to have a summit with Reagan, Reagan pressured Chun to reduce Kim’s sentence as a precondition for the summit and saved Kim.
After his presidential victory in 1997, Kim proposed to his successor, Kim Young-sam, to pardon former presidents Chun and Roh Tae-woo. Kim Dae-jung, victim of political oppression, forgave the unforgivable foes. After taking office, he invited the two former presidents and first ladies to the Blue House at least once every quarter during his term. “You can tell one’s true character only after you spend time with the person,” wrote Lee Soon-ja, Chun’s wife, in her autobiography.
Kim Dae-jung respected his foes as an elder statesmen of the country and beyond any grudge. It was a logical extension of his belief that ending political retaliation and promoting reconciliation and unity was the only driving force to lead the country. Kim accumulated political assets of reconciliation between the liberals and conservatives and between the Jeolla and Gyeongsang regions. Thanks to the effort, he was able to reform the labor sector and overcome the Asian foreign currency crisis. He resolved the challenges of merging state medical insurance programs and separating practices of doctors and pharmacists. A historic inter-Korean summit also was the outcome of his crusade for national unity.
Democracy in America collapsed not because it didn’t have enough dollars or advanced arms. It was because it failed to unite behind its own system of governance and its ideals. South Korea, still divided over many issues, is in even more desperate need of internal unity. If the administration is toying with the special pardons as a political strategy, the divided country will be shattered into pieces.
In three years and seven months in office, President Moon has achieved no major accomplishments. Even the core members of the administration said, “Eradicating the accumulated evils is not an accomplishment.” For Moon to leave an accomplishment in Korea’s history, national unity is critical. I hope his special pardons will mark a starting point for unity, not division and curses.