Ending the Rashomon effect
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The Daejang-dong land development scandal is proof of the malfunctioning criminal justice system of this country. While residents of the Daejang-dong site are suffering hardships, top lawyers, politicians, construction companies and journalists have enjoyed an orgy of greed and self-interest. President Moon Jae-in ordered a thorough and speedy investigation, but the prosecution’s probe lacks substance. Prosecutors requested a warrant to detain Kim Man-bae, a key figure in the scandal, based on transcripts of conversations among stakeholders even without combing through money transactions and the court rejected the request. Prosecutors raided the Seongnam City Government 16 days after the investigation began, but they did not search the mayor’s or secretaries’ offices.
In the transcript, Kim said half of the dividends from Cheonhwa Dongin No. 1, an affiliate of Hwacheon Daeyu, an asset management company, belonged to “him.” But Lee Jeong-su, head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, appeared at a National Assembly hearing and said Kim was not referring to a top politician, effectively clearing Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung, the ruling Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, from the suspicion.
Prosecutor General Kim Oh-soo also served as a counsel of the city government. Is it really possible for prosecutors to impartially investigate Lee, who was Seongnam mayor when he approved the land development project?
When the Republic of Korea was founded in 1948, the superpowers looked down on the country as it was extremely poor. Nevertheless, the government protected the value of land. President Syngman Rhee, a renowned anti-communist, named Cho Bong-am, a communist, as the first agricultural and forestry minister to start bold land reforms. Kim Seong-su, head of the Korea Democratic Party (KDP), which largely represented landlords, cooperated with the reforms. The Rhee administration bought land from landlords and sold it back to farmers.
Tenant farmers were given rights to properties after paying 30 percent of their crops annually for five years. As they had to pay 50 percent during the Japanese colonization period, they were happy. After promulgating the land reform law on March 10, 1950, the conservative government completed the distribution of farmlands by April 15. If the president had delayed the process, the reforms would have not taken place due to the breakout of the Korean War two months later.
The first Constitution of the country stipulated that the state shall endeavor to realize the land-to-the-tillers principle with respect to agricultural land. At the request of KDP head Kim Seong-su, Korea University Prof. Yoo Jin-oh wrote the draft of the Constitution. Yoo said farmland reform is the best way to stop communism, and Kim enthusiastically supported it.
The idea was a disaster to landlords. They received national bonds for the lands, but they became worthless due to the 1950-53 Korean War. The landlords criticized President Rhee, saying he was as evil as North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Kim Seong-su was one of the most powerful landlords, yet his selflessness shone in the reforms.
Shortly after liberation from Japan in 1945, the U.S. Army Military Government conducted a poll of 8,000 South Koreans. About 80 percent wanted socialism and 7 percent wanted communism. But farmers, who owned land for the first time through the land reforms, did not support communism during the war. As class distinctions between aristocrats and commoners disappeared, commoners were able to educate their children, which became the driving force for Korea’s industrialization.
In the 1950s and 60s, Korea was ranked at the top of the index for equal access to property rights. A World Bank report in 2003 pointed out that a country’s GDP grows faster when land is equally distributed during the early days of a country’s foundation. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said his country is still poor because it failed to complete land reforms although Korea had done the job successfully in the 1950s. In the Philippines, where about 100 families own over half of the land, the government has yet to start land reform. In fact, farmland reform was Korea’s first economic democratization measure.
About 70 years ago, anti-communists, democratic socialists, landlords and intellectuals all united for the sake of the country’s unity and prosperity. They distributed land, the starting point of human dignity. They were different from the monsters who recently created chaos in Daejang-dong.
The Daejang-dong land development scandal is an insult to the country’s miraculous history and basic principles. Gov. Lee, who is at the center of all suspicions, said that he will surrender his presidential candidacy if he is found to have pocketed even a cent from the project. Lee must prove his innocence through an independent counsel investigation without any delay instead of asking the unreliable prosecution to probe the scandal. The Rashomon effect, where two contradictory descriptions of one event exist at the same time, is torture to the people.
Unfortunately, Korea is suffering from a surfeit of scandals. While Gov, Lee, the ruling party candidate, is facing the development scandal, Yoon Seok-youl, a prominent contender for the opposition, is facing a controversy surrounding his reliance on shamanism. Their scandals are shaking the country. While the public lives in a democratic republic, candidates are still living in the pre-modern era.
The international community is paying attention to Korea’s role in the post-Covid-19 era at the juncture of the U.S.-China hegemony battle. But none of the candidates are sending a proper message.
No matter who will become the president, unity will be impossible. An insecure leader will only raise his guard and remain satisfied by attacking his opponents and critics. It is a tragedy that unqualified candidates are rambling on about nothing in the presidential race.