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Finding a new system

May 17,2019
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Choi Sang-yeon
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

A Korean traveling in Italy would feel at home — strangely — thanks to the fiery temperament and traditional attachment to families they experience. Italians can be rude — and contradictory — as they tend to impose on others what they think is right, and yet hate to be told what to do by others. Politics are boisterous and contentious. That is probably why many find Koreans more similar to Italians than the Japanese.

Koreans are loud and opinionated. Historical records show King Jeongjo (1752-1800) of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) dealt with over 3,000 contentious issues when he traveled to the countryside. The way the common people petitioned the king was rowdy. Ordinary folk would rudely stop the king’s parade, and the guards at times had to punish them for unruliness. When that did not stop them, the court lords had them flogged before hearing their complaints.

Koreans remain as demanding and boisterous, but the difference today is that they complain digitally. They bombard the Blue House’s homepage with petitions bearing their opinions and claims. Some of them are reasonable and convincing enough for policymakers to take into consideration.

Yet the lion’s share is personal venting. People hype issues that the presidential office cannot possibly begin to help with. Some are really bizarre, such as calling for a death sentence for a scandal-plagued celebrity or asking the government to arrange dates for singles. Some have even suggested the shutting down of the Blue House homepage. Under a monarch, most of these petitioners would have been flogged.

No one can find fault with the freedom of expression in today’s democratic world. But it is not pleasant to witness the Blue House silently enjoying the hoi polloi fuming over topics that serve them well. The latest example is a petition to disband the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP). The petition gained a massive number of signatures at an explosive pace. In an apparent reference to the LKP, President Moon Jae-in said there is no hope in politics that fan division and conflict. As it turned out, a plethora of netizens’ petitions to reinvestigate past scandals involving former senior officials under conservative governments led the president to order the prosecution to reopen a number of old cases. No doubt an army of private citizens’ petitions helped the ruling party “fast-track” such controversial bills as the one establishing an extraordinary law enforcement body to punish corrupt high-level government officials.

Former President Park Geun-hye launched a campaign to invite civil petitions to pass bills that had been vehemently resisted by the opposition Democratic Party — now the ruling party — when she began her third year in office. She was more or less telling the National Assembly that she would bypass the opposition and get support from the people in order to get things done. After that, her administration clashed with the opposition on nearly every bill. She often asked the people to “make a judgment” on the legislature, mainly the opposition. Moon Jae-in, then opposition leader, vociferously attacked the move as brazen suppression of the opposition.

Entering his third year in office, Moon is doing the same thing. His governing entirely focuses on his support base. As a result, politics are irrevocably divided thanks to his die-hard loyalists. The Blue House petition page brims with fake news and distortions.

A massive democratic movement in the mid-’80s helped end the military regime (1980-87) of President Chun Doo Hwan. But the progressive camp does not evaluate his successor, Roh Tae-woo, as a democratic government although the general-turned-politician was elected through the first-ever direct presidential election. The Moon administration takes pride in being a “revolutionary” government born through popular candlelight vigils. But what the grassroots movement impeached and replaced in 2017 was a self-indulgent governing power. The candlelight movement demands Moon take a path toward communication and cooperation with opposition parties rather than adhering to its dogma.

Although three decades have passed since Italy carried out a sweeping “clean hands” crackdown on corruption in the ’90s by indicting 4,600 government officials and many legislators, the country is still struggling with corruption. Antonio Di Pietro, the special prosecutor who spearheaded the campaign, lamented that it was half-done because Italy could not devise a systematic cure after identifying and removing the tumor. Bringing down a system is not the end: it must be replaced with a new one. Moon must remember that he received applause for his inauguration speech two years ago because he vowed to make a difference in our divided and contentious politics during the campaign.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 16, Page 34