No shame, no trust
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The powers that be are relentless in their hypocrisy. After all the controversies over former Justice Ministers Cho Kuk and Choo Mi-ae and lawmaker Yoon Mee-hyang, the latest figure to find himself in the eye of a storm is Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su. What ties all these people together is a lack of shame. They blatantly lie before the public and try to excuse themselves when their lies are uncovered. They claim they did not know or could not remember what they did. The parade of excuses that nobody believes has become unbearable.
In a written response to questioning by the National Assembly, Chief Justice Kim claimed he had never refused to accept the resignation of Lim Seong-geun, a senior judge on the Busan High Court, before his impeachment by the legislature. When Kim turned out to have lied, he attributed it to his “poor memory nine months ago.” He followed in the footsteps of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, who denied he had lied but relied on “ambiguous” memories.
Cho’s wife Chung Kyung-sim was found guilty of forging a certificate by the president of Dongyang University, where she worked as a professor, for her daughter despite her denial of any wrongdoing. Cho’s successor Choo Mi-ae gave her aide the phone number of a senior military officer commanding her son in military service, but denied she had ordered the aide to pressure the officer to extend her son’s sick leave in an illegitimate way. Rep. Yoon Mee-hyang of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) responded to the allegation that she used embezzled civilian donations intended for the Japanese military’s wartime victims of sexual slavery to finance her daughter’s overseas schooling by arguing her daughter was frugal to the extent where she had to walk to school.
Humans differ from animals because they know shame. One should feel ashamed when proven to have broken the law or acted beyond reason or morality. American anthropologist and author Ruth Benedict argued that guilt is rooted in Western and Christian culture whereas shame lies in non-Western cultures.
In a shame culture, the embarrassment and the loss of face when others find out about wrongdoing cannot be bearable and can lead to extreme actions. Watching one’s words and deeds so as not to lose face in public can be intrinsic in maintaining a communal society.
It seems that the liberal administration of President Moon Jae-in, who came to power through the candlelight vigil revolution, has no shame. “How can I deal with the legislature if I accept your resignation?” Chief Justice Kim told Judge Lim. It is appalling that the remarks were made by the chief justice, whose primary role is to defend the sovereignty of the judiciary. Worse, he knew no shame even after his lie was exposed.
While a prosecutor tries to find out wrongs that have been committed, a judge determines what is false. Both are innately postured in a tense relationship with the sitting power. As French philosopher Montesquieu argued, “Constant experience shows that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority until it is confronted with limits.” In the Spirit of Laws published in 1748, he argued there would be no liberty if the judicial branch was not separated from the legislative and executive powers.
Kim has betrayed his sacred duty as chief justice. He disgraced the judiciary to cater to the ruling party to keep to his seat. There cannot be a greater disgrace. This is also a betrayal to the people who elected Moon to restore judicial order and justice.
Anyone can err. Politicians are no different. When shamed, one must be humble and atone for mistakes. There is no remorse or apology if one knows no shame. People in the Moon administration and DP are stingy with apologies. When faced with pressure from the opposition to resign, Kim said he would work harder for the court. Greed has replaced a lack of shame. “I cannot easily lay down the burden given to me,” former Justice Minister Cho once said. “To do my responsibilities as justice minister unwaveringly is my fate,” Choo said. “I will work harder for the comfort women survivors,” Rep. Yoon said before cameras.
If there is no shame, trust cannot be earned. Without trust, nothing can be done. The ruling leadership is wrecking the social trust. Lies are made even after breaking the laws without having shame. They go on to become ministers and lawmakers.
Power could be achieved through deceiving the people with flowery rhetoric and packaging. But public hearts cannot be won over. Without trust, the country cannot move on.