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Hubris rears its head

Dec 04,2018
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Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Abuse of power comes in many forms and springs up in unlikely places. A special team of investigators under the Blue House’s anticorruption division has made headlines for all the wrong reasons. If what the police claims is true — that one of the investigators enquired after a construction worker currently under police investigation on corruption charges, and that other members of the team are golfing for free during working hours — the Blue House special investigation team is quite caught up with the power it has been given. The team was comprised of elite members of the prosecution and police to head anticorruption surveillance under the office of Cho Kuk, senior presidential secretary for civil affairs. In other words, the very same people given the responsibility of seeking out abuses of power and corruption in public offices committed them.

The office of the secretary for civil affairs should be a most discreet presidential body in charge of ensuring the integrity of public office. Its involvement in scandalous events raises alarms about the Blue House’s ethical standards. The Park Geun-hye administration came crashing down following corruption scandals. Superintendent Park Kwan-cheon at the Blue House’s office overseeing public office, who leaked confidential office documents, opened Pandora’s Box on Park’s inner circle by claiming that Choi Soon-sil was positioned on the top rung of power. It is not comforting to see the specter of power abuse that brought down Park lurking over the office of President Moon Jae-in, who replaced her by promising a new era of clean public office.

Moon cannot be a stranger to temptation, having served as the secretary for civil affairs under President Roh Moo-hyun. He set up the special investigation team under his office. To keep authority in check, he even authored a presidential decree to strictly limit his office’s special investigators’ scope of supervision and their work.

Chairing a senior secretariat meeting in the Blue House on June 18 shortly after the ruling party’s sweeping victory in the local elections, Moon ordered the office of civil affairs to be extra vigilant, reminding it that a government in its second and third year often run into inappropriate incidents. The Blue House replaced all members of the special investigation team upon learning of the scandal.

Such abnormalities are bred from an overly powerful presidential office. The special investigation team was intoxicated with the powers of the presidential office and fell on its face. British historian Arnold Toynbee discovered in his empirical study of civilizations that the creative minority tended to be mystically inspired and inevitably fell into the sins of arrogance, over-weaning pride and hubris. Hubris finds its roots in the Greek word hybris, which refers to excessive pride. The tragic flaw is often found in individuals wielding powerful positions to such extents that they lose touch with reality, thereby inciting the wrath of the gods.

Moon and his aides all have credentials from the democratic movement believing that reform drives by former liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun failed because they were overly confident in their abilities to reform society. They did not want to make the same mistake and stormed ahead with the anticorruption drive in their first year. But before seeing through what they started, one presidential security guard assaulted a civilian while under the influence of alcohol, and a former protocol secretary was caught drunk driving. There have been reports of scam attempts by impostors posing as presidential staff. All these events cannot be entirely coincidental.

The Moon administration’s hubris has stretched too far. The president endorsed candidates for ministerial posts who have been denied by the legislature. Eight ministerial-level officials have started their jobs without legislative confirmation. Soon after taking office, Moon promised political parties that he would not appoint anyone disapproved by the public: but he has not kept his word.

The office of the secretary for civil affairs has been spearheading campaigns to undo so-called past wrongdoings through law enforcement agencies and watchdogs like the Board of Audit and Inspection, National Intelligence Service, prosecution, police and National Tax Service. Two former presidents were sent to prison, and the former Supreme Court’s chief justice could face trial soon. Top business leaders have already been tried and sent to prison. Others fret that they could be next.

Justice and equality are right. But over-emphasis of abstract values has weakened the spirit of adventure and boldness that drove Korea Inc. and innovation. Under such a debilitative mood, society can hardly move forward. The ruling power must change its mindset. The conservatives and figures from Gyeongsang Province have dominated our politics for a long time. They have molded the political landscape to sustain power.

The progressive front must draw centrists and achieve unity across regions if it wants to hold onto power. It needs tolerance as much as a reform drive to pull the conservatives, opposition, Gyeongsang voters and businessmen to its side. Without gaining support from them, it cannot prepare for the future.

Voltaire famously said that reason brings about tolerance and calms conflict. If the government really wants to see through reform, it must practice tolerance. Reform can only be achieved when everyone willingly take part.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 3, Page 31