The ruling Democratic Party of Korea on Friday dropped charges of election law violations that it had filed against a university professor and the news outlet to which she had contributed a column critical of the party.
In a column published in the Jan. 29 edition of the Kyunghyang Shinmun, Lim Mi-ri, a Korea University professor, criticized the ruling party for “being preoccupied with its grip on power rather than with people’s aspirations even though it claims it is a regime for the people.” At the end of the column, she proposed that voters support any party “except for the Democratic Party of Korea” in the general election. It was a sort of warning to the party that it must not forget what voters long for.
If a political party takes issue with a newspaper column, it is proper to request a chance first to publish a response in the news outlet. If the request is not accepted, it may well seek press arbitration. If it is dissatisfied with the results of arbitration, it may then bring the matter to court.
But the ruling party dispensed with intermediate steps, and filed a complaint with the prosecution directly on Feb. 5, seeking punishment for the columnist and the newspaper.
It is clear that the aim of the accusations was to suppress criticism of the party by menacing critics with legal suits. It is an act contrary to freedom of expression, upon which democracy is built, and proves the arrogance of the party toward the people. A politically mature ruling party should be open to criticism from a scholar, unless it is slandered malignantly with fake facts.
After the accusations became public knowledge Thursday, denunciations of the party rained down. Liberal figures sided with the columnist, challenging the party to “accuse me, too.” Civic groups friendly to the ruling camp joined the condemnation, raising concerns about freedom of expression.
A day later, the party’s public affairs office issued a statement admitting it “went too far by filing a complaint” and expressing its “regret.”
However, the Democratic Party of Korea did not apologize formally, nor did its leader express any regrets publicly.
Even as it announced its decision to drop the accusations, the party noted the professor had once worked at a think tank for an opposition politician, concluding there was political intent to slander the party. This implies the columnist was untrustworthy because she had not been “on our side from the beginning.” It is doubtful whether the party truly regretted accusing the columnist.
“This issue is done because we decided to drop the charges. We have nothing more to explain,” a senior spokesman for the party told reporters who asked him to elaborate.
Though the complaint was signed by Democratic Party leader Lee Hae-chan, he reportedly vented his anger during a closed-door meeting with senior party officials on Friday, asking, “Who on earth proposed filing the accusations?” His anger is surreal and absurd.
Professor Lim demanded the party apologize not only to her but also to the people for its attack on freedom of expression, but no one in the party has come forward to take responsibility publicly. If the Democratic Party wants to shun unnecessary misunderstandings and wasteful controversies, it would do well to apologize publicly as soon as possible.
This incident raises suspicions about the ruling party’s view of democracy.
The party has taken pride in carrying on the tradition and spirit of the democracy movement that ended dictatorship in South Korea. A considerable number of its members fought against authoritarian regimes in the 1980s. They must have felt the need for freedom of expression more acutely than anyone. Nonetheless, the ruling camp is effectively doing what dictators did -- without hesitation.
Allegedly on command from the presidential office, police raided the office of an opposition party candidate on the day he won the nomination to run in a local mayoral election. Cheong Wa Dae attempted to buy off an aspiring ruling party candidate to discourage him from running for mayor. The justice minister thwarted the people’s right to know by deciding not to disclose the indictment of suspects involved in the presidential office’s alleged meddling in the election.
Now the ruling camp has reached the point where its members refuse to tolerate a column and hurl accusations at the columnist. Even while doing so, they say they are champions of democracy. It is questionable whether they really fought dictators for the sake of democracy, or to take power themselves.
The ruling party must wake up from its arrogance and self-righteousness, and remember the basic spirit of democracy.