The name of a social activist that I heard for the first time working as a journalist was Jeon Tae-il, a cutter employed by a small-time garment maker in Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon area. The 22-year-old man was little known even among workers in the corridors of the clothes factories, although he had led protests against extreme working conditions at his and other workplaces for some time. But he instantly became the symbol of labor movements in Korea when he set himself alight, waving the printed text of the Labor Conditions Law in his hand.
The reporter who made an initial report of Jeon’s death on Nov. 13, 1970 to the city desk chief from the fiery scene was surprised to realize back in the office that the story was banned by the authorities. A single column was allowed when the funeral was held a couple of days later. Labor protests that were considered detrimental to economic development were oppressed at workplaces and subject to a news blackout throughout the authoritarian rule of President Park Chung-hee.
As Jeon’s deeds awoke the labor ranks, workers’ collective actions followed in varying scales. The Park government imposed a state of emergency in 1971, which a year later was augmented to a state of martial law with the suspension of the Constitution. A dark age continued until the democratic reforms of the late 1980s while pro-democracy movements, aligned with labor protests, struggled to put an end to the decades of military-backed rule.
In the “Sixth Republic” established under the 1987 Constitution that is still in effect without a single amendment, a new type of liberal political activism has grown, freed from the fears of physical violence of the past era and guaranteed the democratic process and basic rights. The long-sidelined leftists experienced state rule when Kim Dae-jung was elected president, partly helped by the Asian financial crisis of 1997.
Leftist rule was extended by five more years until early 2008. Lee Myung-bak took over power, but the preceding 10 years had already given left-wing activists opportunities to get a foothold in various mainstream sectors of society. They competed hard with conservative rivals. Some won and others lost in the races to government jobs, industries, businesses, academia and the art world. A level playing field was finally guaranteed for competitors in all spectrums.
This may look like the advent of a just society by all aspects. But democracy was still young in this country, and the new actors busy with pursuing their personal ambitions -- social as well as financial -- neglected efforts to elevate their moral standards to match their exalted status, or to the principles they preach in their new realms of activities. There was no real soul searching to provide democratic contents for the democratic form they operate. Cho Kuk, who President Moon Jae-in named justice minister this week, was among this new breed of elite in Korea.
He apparently represents the new social structure that has produced privileged groups not only on the right but on the left as well. Some matters he and his family had to explain under harsh public scrutiny as well as prosecution investigation took place during the time when he was absent from political power, such as his daughter’s entering her name as the primary author of a highly sophisticated pathological thesis and winning a university internship opportunity as a high school student.
While Cho was preparing for the National Assembly hearing before his appointment, the representative of the Jeon Tae-il Society, a group dedicated to promote the spirit of the deceased labor activist, reportedly requested an interview with the justice minister nominee to discuss the plight of young people from underprivileged families. Cho did not grant the interview but said during a meeting with the press, “I feel sorry to the young people who had no opportunities to use the legal system that my daughter enjoyed because their parents were different from me.”
He admitted he was different from a certain class of people who could not afford to provide their children with chances at internships and scholarships that were available for Cho’s daughter because of the status and social networks of her parents. In other words, he was taking it for granted that Jeon Tae-il would not have been able to provide his children with such privileges had he lived longer. We know Cho has earned his fame by lashing out at the monopolizing of opportunities by the privileged group.
“You don’t have to crave to become a dragon but better wish to be content and happy living as a small fry in a stream,” Cho wrote in one of his books on leftist thoughts. Yet, he and his wife made extra efforts to obtain papers certifying their daughter’s services as an intern that were believed to have facilitated her entry into a prestigious university and graduate schools in Seoul and Busan in order to secure nothing but a generational succession of privilege.
Park Sung-min, a political consultant, says that the generation born in the 1960s who became politically active in the democracy struggles of the 1980s has become “intellectually lazy and morally depraved, exchanged their courage and passion of earlier days with hypocrisy and greed and now are trapped in the network of corrupt peers.”
Some may not agree with him, but few would contend that at least the dichotomy of “the clean but incapable left” and “capable but corrupt right” has been broken. Park concludes that both groups that had represented the ideals of reform in the past are now accustomed to “personalize good things and socialize bad things.” Unfortunately, Cho Kuk offered evidence for this judgment.
Cho’s having taken office Tuesday will not close the controversy, but opens a new phase of national turmoil. People will feel uncomfortable watching the new justice minister pitted against a prosecution that has indicted Cho’s wife on charges of forgery and is continuing its investigation of other cases of felony involving the family. Unlimited cooperation is essential for successful enforcement of law, but many doubt that it will be possible under the current situation.
The core issue is obvious to everyone, perhaps except for the president and the new minister himself. It concerns not the great value of social justice but the minimum level of civic consciousness not to harm others in pursuit of my own interest or my children’s.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He previously worked as managing editor of The Korea Times and Seoul correspondent for Reuters. -- Ed.