The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In her book “The story of the Romans,” author Nanami Shiono defined Julius Caesar as a leader with capability to connect personal interest to public interest. It goes this way. He borrows money from commanders and lends it to soldiers. Then, soldiers show utmost loyalty to their chief commander to appreciate his warm heart. What about his commanders? They did their best to win a war not to lose a chance to get the money back from the Roman general. Caesar’s act could constitute abuse of power today, but it’s like killing two birds with one stone.
Two millenniums later, Korean society shows the opposite ability to divert public interest into personal one. Political leaders are promising a massive civil engineering project ahead of elections. Aboard a patrol boat on a well-choreographed trip to Gadeok Island off Busan in February, President Moon Jae-in said, “My heart is beating!” to see the island being pushed to build an airport by the ruling Democratic Party (DP). The following day, a special bill, which would exempt a 28 trillion-won ($24.6-billion) construction project from the required feasibility study, was passed in the DP-dominated National Assembly.
President Moon Jae-in shows a strong reaction to the scandal of the Korea Land and Housing Corporation (LH) day after day. He is determined to “root out corruption” of LH employees who allegedly bought land before the announcement of a development project by the government. Moon often uses the word “fairness,” one of his core values.
But his remarks cannot convince the people due to blurry boundaries of public interest and personal interest. The president has never punished corruption of his aides and DP lawmakers strictly. If such corruption occurred under the conservative Kim Young-sam administration, he would have sacked his land minister first. Despite negative reactions to such an emotional reaction, citizens could look forward to seeing such a sacrifice.
President Moon instructed Land Minister Byeon Chang-heum — former CEO of LH — to “accept the issue very sensitively.” But what kind of sensitivity can we expect from Land Minister Byeon who at a confirmation hearing blamed the carelessness of a young contract worker for his tragic death on the Seoul subway while fixing the platform door in 2016?
What attracts our attention in the LH scandal is the reactions its employees showed under the cloak of anonymity. Some of them wrote on the company’s intranet, “This [access to land development information] is the benefits offered by our company only. If you envy us, you better come to our company.” Their work ethics collapsed under the weight of immorality and insensitivity. Other LH employees joined the chorus saying, “Even ruling party lawmakers engaged in speculation after obtaining development information from us. Why are the people only attacking us?” The Moon administration takes pride in ending illegal gains from real estate.
Moon attacked former conservative governments for seeking private interest disguised as public interest through the Cheonggye Foundation, K-Foundation and Mir-Foundation before he was elected president. But it did not take long before public expectations were betrayed. His administration has been dotted with a number of such cases. A former justice minister and his wife embodied “family love” after taking advantage of their privileges as elites. Another former justice minister abused her power to pressure a military officer to extend her son’s vacation during his service. A civic activist-turned-lawmaker of the ruling party embezzled donations for former wartime sex slaves in a crusade for justice. Another DP legislator insisted that her purchase of several houses in Mokpo, South Jeolla, had nothing to do with the government’s designation of the area as “cultural heritage sites.” The moment Moon confessed he was indebted to a former justice minister after he stepped down, the fairness ardently upheld by the president lost its value and collapsed.
Public despair at soaring apartment prices and lack of jobs made citizens realize that a state cannot take responsibility for their lives. In the beginning, they thought the problems resulted from the Moon administration’s incompetency, but they now question if the government is determined to turn them around after watching its repeated fumbles. They have just turned to surviving on their own.