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A raid republic

Aug 15,2018
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Bae Myung-bok
The author is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Investigators storm into your residence or office and rummage through every room, desk drawer and cabinet and shovel everything they can find into boxes, including phones and computers. Everything about you becomes exposed. One person who endured that awful experience recalled that he would rather go to prison than have to go through that again. Of course, one rarely has to go through such an unpleasant experience if laws are faithfully followed. But that may not be easy for everyone, especially for businessmen.

Search warrant issuances have become common under the liberal Moon Jae-in administration. According to monthly legal data, authorization for law enforcement authorities to search locations for criminal investigations totaled 104,981 cases in the first half of the year, the first time it reached above 100,000 for a six-month period. The toll suggests 867 grants daily on average from January to June, excluding weekends.

Every government tightens disciplinary order in its early stages. Search warrants surged in 2013, the first year of the conservative administration of President Park Geun-hye. The number hit 80,115 in the first half. The spike under Moon has been the result of a broad investigation into what he dubbed so-called past ills, or wrongdoings. It is also to be expected since a liberal president took office after two conservative governments — and the impeachment and removal of one of those presidents.

The Foreign Ministry was raided for the first time ever under the allegation that the ministry had sought a deal with the Supreme Court over a compensation suit against the government and Japanese companies by victims of forced labor during World War II. Foreign Ministry divisions related to the case were targeted. Their boss — Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha — was out of the country on a business trip. Foreign Ministry officials were stunned to have gone through the humiliating experience of the seizure of confidential materials. But they had to keep their complaints to themselves.

Prosecutors took away top classified documents. Under criminal law, documents classified as confidential material for public offices cannot be taken without the approval of the head of the government office. Kang should have at least asked the prosecution to delay the raid until she returned from her trip. She did not. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement that it would fully cooperate with the prosecution’s probe.

Adapt, improvise and overcome is one recipe for life. Bureaucrats today have adapted by making a habit of keeping secret recordings. Recorded files can be the best protection in a sticky situation. They discreetly record conversations with their bosses or other government officials just in case they find themselves in a spot over past issues. The mood in the bureaucratic community reflects what’s really going on in bureaucracy these days. They keep profiles as low as possible.

A government born in the aftermath of a massive public protest against a corrupt president would try to live up to a new zeitgeist. Reflection on past actions and wrongdoings are necessary to start anew. But any crackdown should have been swift and precise. Public officials cannot work with conviction if they feel that Big Brother looking over their shoulder and breathing down their necks. The air should be lifted so that government officials do not have to sensor one another and can discuss policies freely. If this situation continues, tangible achievements can hardly be made.

Each office acts as a leg of the government body. If the leg weakens, the body would lose balance. Cabinet ministers merely take orders from the presidential office. The ministers must have more authority. If they are not reliable, they can be replaced.

The generation of student activists born in the 1960s who attended universities during the turbulent 1980s make up the core of the presidential staff. Seven top presidential aides, including Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok, were student body presidents in the 1980s. Out of 34 secretaries under Im, 19 are from student movement or civilian activist backgrounds. Their zeitgeist from when they fought the military regime cannot continue. An organization deprived of checks and balances runs the risk of falling into a collective intelligence fallacy.

Like many others, I have faith in President Moon’s sincerity. He sincerely cares for the socially weak and strives to build a fairer society. He shuns formalities and exercises the honorable virtue of modesty. But such virtues do not necessarily ensure successful governance. He must recruit people from different areas of the broad spectrum of society and encourage balanced and rigorous debates. He must not pore over a plethora of reports until late into the night. Instead, he must meet people from various fields to hear their voices. He would then learn how wrong and dangerous the excesses of search raids are.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 14, Page 31