The author is an international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“Bringing a family to disgrace” means that a punishment for an individual’s wrongdoing is so severe that it is inflicted on the entire family. In the scandal surrounding Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) employees, the government used the phrase due to the public’s disgust with alleged purchases of land just before it was designated as the site for massive apartment construction. However, the Moon Jae-in administration and the ruling Democratic Party (DP) are faced with a dilemma after taking such stern action because the government cannot avoid its own accountability for the LH scandal.
In Korean society, “bringing a family to disgrace” is used in the same context as “defecting to North Korea.” Under authoritarian regimes of the past, a rumor of a relative associated with North Korea could mean social ostracism. As time passed, the “red” hysteria calmed down, but the negative connotation associated with the term “defector to the North” hasn’t completely disappeared. In this situation, the Moon administration openly raised the possibility of a South Korean fisheries official having defected to the North after the government and the military were heavily criticized for not properly responding to North Korea when he was killed in North Korean waters. After the shocking incident, controversy started over the word “defection” as mentioned by the DP, government and military.
As a civilian — not a soldier — was shot and killed in North Korean waters, the accountability lies with North Korea, not “defection.” Also, as the person was already dead, the defection charge is only a unilateral claim that cannot be confirmed. Nevertheless, the DP, government and military took turns and mentioned “defection,” which can cause fatal wounds in our society. In the end, public opinion was sharply divided over the alleged defection between supporters and opponents of the government.
Another word that brands a person in Korean society is “murderer.” Speaking of a massive rally organized by the conservatives last year on Gwanghwamun Square, President Moon Jae-in’s Chief of Staff Noh Young-min said in the National Assembly that the organizer of the rally was a “murderer.” Noh took a step back and said the expression was excessive. But the remark led to a heated debate on the double standard the liberal government uses toward large-scale demonstrations on the square.
It is best not to assemble during a pandemic. The Spanish government was under attack for its International Women’s Day event on March 8, 2020. 120,000 people gathered in Madrid, and the minister of gender equality who attended the event eventually tested positive. Spain’s conservative opposition People’s Party attacked the liberal government for not banning the assembly, encouraging people’s participation, and turning the country into an “epidemic bomb.” The authorities in Madrid banned Women’s Day parade this year.
The difference between the Gwanghwamun rally and the Madrid rally is that the former was staged to protest the government’s tough social distancing guidelines while the latter was encouraged by the Spanish government. Whether it’s against their government’s direction or not, the Madrid march and Gwanghwamun rally were not designed to spread the virus. Asking responsibility for violating social distancing rules and denouncing participants in the rally as a “bomb” or a “murderer” are different.
Harsh words like defector or murderer reminds me of the Colosseum. They find a target for their supporters to vent their anger at and put it in the arena to please public sentiment. On the offering beaten in the Colosseum, those who have views different from the government would avoid mentioning or consider themselves a minority. This is how the government silences opponents.
With the LH case, however, it’s not easy for the government to find a target from outside to put in the Colosseum. Reaping gains from inside information is a deeply rooted malpractice and has plagued us in the past. But it is hard for the government to answer the question of why the executives and employees’ real estate profiteering has been ignored over the last four years.
In fact, the problem of Colosseum politics is that it turns reality into virtual reality. It often ends up only giving emotional consolation. Anger can be vented by putting a certain group or individual in the Colosseum, but the true problem is that punishment remains at the field official level.
It is not too late for the government. The persons responsible are still there, so they must be thoroughly and speedily cracked down upon, as the prime minister said. “The inflamed areas must be cut out,” he stressed. But the government and the DP still seem to stick with blaming the former Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations for all the problems. What our citizens demand from the government is “mea culpa.”