Dispelling the myth
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The upstream and downstream distinction was annoying from the start. Former ruling Democratic Party (DP) Chairman Lee Hae-chan claimed that the upper stream was clean when it came to the scandal over buying of property with inside information by employees of the Korea Land & Housing Corp., but wrongdoings occurred downstream. Lee was suggesting that the elite figures around him were clean, but people lower in the hierarchy were corrupt. “We must extend our governing term to clean the lower stream,” he stressed. Lee displayed a keen sense of moral supremacy, as if the liberal elite had the duty to correct the mess created by people less fortunate and enlightened than themselves.
The sense of self-importance by liberals for their contribution to democratization comes across as arrogant. DP lawmakers even motioned a bill to honor figures who contributed to the democracy movement, although delaying its passage for the April 7 by-elections. The bill proposes to honor figures who fought against military regimes with national recognition and privileges for their children in schooling and employment. They are out to reward themselves and legitimize privileges for their children. They are keen to distinguish themselves from those who did not stand up against military regimes, likening themselves as independent movement activists against Japanese colonial rule.
Our society is dominated by the myth of activism. There is a sense of heroism among activists, as if their protests and sacrifices were solely responsible for democracy in this country. They pronounce themselves crusaders for justice, demanding loyal obedience from the public. The delusion puts them in the “clean” stream and the others in the muddy zone. Their privileges are rightful “honors.”
The Blue House is largely comprised of former activists. President Moon Jae-in lied about having 11 years of farming experience to purchase farmland in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang, to build a post-retirement residence, and yet nonchalantly orders a crackdown on speculative activities around farmland. His former Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok repeatedly defends the late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who ended his own life under sexual harassment accusations, causing additional pain to Park’s victim. Moon’s former chief of policy Kim Sang-jo champions tenants’ rights while sharply raising the jeonse deposit paid by one of his own tenants. Kim Eui-kyeom, the former presidential spokesman who resigned from office for real estate speculation allegations, has returned to public office and become a proportional representative.
Lee, the former DP head, made a fortune on farmland he bought in Sejong City after converting it to general purpose use. Coincidentally, an expressway interchange will pass near his land. Rep. Park Ju-min, who sponsored the bill to enhance tenants’ rights, raised the rent on an apartment he owns in Seoul a month ahead of the bill’s passage. Soiled water flows through the DP.
The mainstream in the governing front engaged themselves in the democracy movement during their student days in the 1980s. Their peers are divided into those who promoted political and social reforms through activism and those who joined companies. They took a different path depending on their backgrounds, convictions, and the kind of people they mingled with in student days. Student activists became politicians. Salesmen and businessmen who worked day and night to push the nation out of poverty are demeaned as capitalists connected to the military regime of Park Chung Hee.
The forces behind industrialization were neither rightist nor leftist. They were mostly practical centrists without a decisive ideology. But they bear a sense of guilt having seen the hardship their activist friends suffered under military regimes. They supported their friends even when they took major posts in the Blue House, government and legislature, as they believed in their purity. But they have been shocked to witness their hypocrisy and arrogance. They were appalled by the sense of immunity and entitlement evident in the corruption and sexual crimes of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, former Seoul mayor Park Won-soon and former Busan mayor Oh Geo-on.
The myth must be dispelled. They are not the only ones behind the June 1987 democratization movement. The reporters who blew the whistle over the torture of college students and the white collar workers who worked for industrialization all contributed to this country’s advances. Samsung and Hyundai’s founders could not have built their corporate empires and the economy without the sweat of employees. The candlelight vigil protests of 2016 were public demonstrations against corruption and abuse of power. George Orwell famously said, ”In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Shouting that we are not downstream lives should be our first speech toward revolution.