The advent of ‘K-tyranny’
The author is a political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in proudly staged the “K-venture” event at the Blue House Thursday. A day earlier, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Hong Nam-ki said he was convinced that “the K-testbed will play the role as a catalyst to boost the vitality of our economy.” Under the Moon administration, the letter “K” is omnipresent, as clearly seen in “K-quarantine,” “K-vaccine” or “K-whatever.”
The “K,” signifying Korea, was a prefix praising Korea’s global competitiveness, as in K-pop, K-food, and K-beauty, for instance. But the Moon administration degraded “K” by using it everywhere whether it be a state-led project or government-run business. The self-proclaimed progressive government instead methodically hided all the shadows behind its K-whatever. We call it “K-dictatorship.”
Then, why can it be branded as a “dictatorship” even as the government is an elected power not having engaged in any sorts of torture on its political enemies as in the past? Dictatorship also evolves — toward a more sophisticated form. In July 2018, The Economist pointed out that the Democracy Index, a snapshot of the state of world democracy compiled by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), continued to fall in 89 countries since the 2008 global financial crisis. (Meanwhile, the index rose in 27 countries.)
The magazine discovered four distinct steps toward the regression of democracy.
First, at times of a national crisis, voters cast their ballots to a leader who promises to recover it. (As we saw in the election of Moon Jae-in as president in 2017 after the impeachment and ouster of President Park Geun-hye over her abuse of power and corruption scandal).
Second, a head of state elected this way endlessly creates — and attacks — imaginary enemies. (Just think of the ‘deep-rooted evils’ and ‘localized pro-Japanese forces’ Moon defined as our archenemies.)
Third, such a leader attempts to oppress or neutralize independent institutions — a major stumbling block to their tyranny. (Just as Moon did with the judiciary, the prosecution and the Board of Audit and Inspection).
Finally, such state leaders make it difficult for their people to expel them from power by controlling the press to manipulate public opinion or by amending election laws. (Just think of the ruling Democratic Party (DP)’s railroading of the draconian Media Arbitration Act or of the DP’s unilateral passage of the weird election law based on unheard-of proportional representation and satellite party systems.
What eerie similarities there are with The Economist’s description of a new type of dictatorship! In a sharp analysis, the prestigious magazine concluded that such a government assumes characteristics of democracy until the third stage, but can hardly be defined as a democracy when it reaches the fourth stage. The stringent Media Arbitration Act the DP prepared to pass through a full session of the National Assembly on Monday could be the final chapter of the soft Fascism of the K-dictatorship.
The ramifications of K-tyranny are far-reaching. Since the implementation of the toughest-ever regulations on our jeonse (long-term deposit) system and monthly rent from July last year, rent prices for apartments in Seoul and the capital area have soared by 25.7 percent, more than eight times the annual average of 3.1 percent in the three years shortly before the law took effect. Despite the backfiring of such rigorous regulations-focused approach, no DP lawmaker has apologized yet.
What matters more than money is a deepening distrust between landlords and tenants. Under the previous jeonse system — Korea’s uniquely rental system — landlords could take advantage of the money in lump sum for their needs while tenants could live in a relatively decent home without having to pay rents each month. But after the government put a 5 percent cap on the rate of rent hikes, fierce disputes took place between landlords and tenants over and over. The two groups have nearly turned into enemies. Another bill being pushed by the DP to enforce the installation of CCTV cameras in surgery rooms is also based on the assumption that doctors cannot be trusted.
The same applies to the government’s abrupt decision to force banks to stop offering mortgage loans to home buyers and stop loans for rent. If the government really wanted to stably maintain the ratio of household debt to overall debts, it should have talked with commercial banks pre-emptively. Instead, it suddenly invoked its financial authority to step in to control the skyrocketing real estate prices. In the face of deepening pains of tenants and landlords, officialdom is sitting on its hand. Bureaucrats only care their boss’s reaction, not the people.
In his book “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard University, argued that elected tyrants destroy the substance of democracy while keeping its style. After the prosecution was nearly deprived of its investigative authority in the government’s crusade for prosecution reform, what’s left now to put the brakes on the sitting power is only the opposition People Power Party (PPP), whose seats are less than a half the DP’s, and the press. The DP even threatens to disband the press by passing the harshest-ever media bill today.
If the press — once dubbed a “fourth branch of government” — is tamed following the legislative, executive and judiciary branches, the next target will be the unfettered social media. When that day comes, pro-government pundits like Kim Ou-joon, an outspoken liberal critic, will see a brave new world. China — a country infamous for its systemic media censorship and control — is not a distant future for Korea. Even when we finally take masks off our face, we may have to continue shutting our mouth for a while.