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[Kim Myong-sik] Local office chiefs enjoy old-fashioned prestige

South Koreans bid farewell to two prominent people last week amidst noises about the mixture of respect and scorn shown in accordance with the people’s ideological divide.

Half a million citizens petitioned the Presidential Office opposing Seoul City Hall sponsoring Park Won-soon’s funeral at the expense of taxpayers’ money. The main opposition United Future Party joined accusers of the mayor in condemning abuse of women in bureaucracy and what they called leftist hypocrisy. The ruling Democratic Party appealed to the people to respect the deceased who had made great services to Korea’s democratic development and protection of human rights.

During the hours when Park’s funeral procession was heading to his hometown of Changnyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, the lawyer for his former secretary held a press conference, flanked by leaders of women’s rights advocate groups, to provide details of the late mayor’s alleged sexual misconducts and to demand that the authorities continue investigations so warnings are given to all future victims.

For days, the capital city produced two long queues of mourners, one for the mayor and the other for Gen. Paik Sun-yup, revered as a hero of the Korean War, who passed away at the age of 99 the day after Park’s death. Small-scale demonstrations were held at some distance from the altars to express their objections to paying tributes to them. A radical group had classified Gen. Park as pro-Japanese for his brief service with the Manchurian Army before the end of the Pacific War.

South Korea, once dubbed Korea Inc. for its dash toward industrialization accompanied by democratic progress, looked like a rudderless boat drifting aimlessly in rough waters during the past week as crowds wandered between the two funeral sites. Gen. Paik was buried in the National Cemetery in Daejeon amid complaints from the right-wing circles for the veterans affairs authorities’ refusal to give the war hero the final resting place in the main graveyard for patriots in Dongjak-dong, Seoul.

Park’s suicide at the age of 64 following a sex scandal brought the liberal ruling force from exaltation after a landslide victory in the April 15 general elections down to huge embarrassment. The tragic denouement of the leftist leader who had not concealed his presidential bid for 2022 after three consecutive terms as mayor of the capital city of 10 million threw cold water on the Democratic Party which has secured absolute majority of 176 seats in the legislature of 300 members.

The ruling party had barely kept Busan Mayor Oh Geo-don from resigning before the April 15 polls fearing impact from his sexual harassment scandal. Now the mayoral offices of the two largest cities of Korea remain vacant to be filled in by-elections to be held sometime next spring. At stake are the governors’ offices in Gyeongi and South Gyeongsang Provinces where Govs. Lee Jae-myung and Kim Kyung-soo are awaiting final Supreme Court rulings after being sentenced to penalties deserving loss of their offices.

Another metropolitan city Mayor Song Chul-ho from Ulsan has been indicted for his part in the suspected conspiracy to get him elected in the June 2018 local elections. The local polls held a year after Moon Jae-in succeeded the impeached president Park Geun-hye awarded the Democratic Party an unprecedented sweep of mayoral and gubernatorial offices across the country. From seven metropolitan cities and nine provinces, the new ruling party grabbed 13 offices of autonomous administration chiefs.

With his death, ex-Mayor Park served a strong warning to his comrades as well as political foes on moral standards they tend to forget in their pursuit for power and bindings in human conducts they are apt to ignore when they achieved their goals and enter offices that provide them with many kinds of prestige. Former Gov. Ahn Hee-jeong of South Chungcheong Province had earlier conveyed the same warning when he was sentenced to three years in jail for sexual offenses on his female secretary.

Many commentators especially from the conservative right are trying to cite the cases of moral lapse involving chiefs of larger cities and provinces as evidence of defective characters common to leftist politicians that they allege to have grown from their careers of fighting against the established norms and authorities. But I would rather not agree simply because there were other sensational cases crossing the ideological divide in the past.

It is shame not only to the citizens of Seoul, Busan or South Chungcheong but to all in the country, and the older generation is sorry to younger people who might imagine the abuse of the weaker sex taking place day and night in high offices occupied by holders of power. Times have changed and there will be more “victims” of anachronism like Park, Ahn or Oh who had profound misunderstanding about the amount of liberty their office provides.

One thing to point out here is that mayoral and gubernatorial offices have too many assistants, including dozens of temporary positions who are appointed by the chief. We hear such ridiculous titles as chief political aide or communication specialist who actually are engaged in preparing for reelection of their bosses. Why should male governors and mayors need female attendants on and off the working hours in and outside offices?

In the age of new millennium, government offices, particularly those of local administration chiefs, remain in the authoritarian system, causing not only redundancies but dark niches allowing chances of abuse of powerless aides regardless of gender. Park, now in the other world, must regret why he had failed to rationalize his surroundings in terms of organizational structure when he moved to the shapely new City Hall building in 2013 two years after his election.

Politics in the second half of 2020 got off to a rough start with the opening of the new National Assembly in the unprecedentedly lopsided partisan balance which allowed the ruling party to occupy the chairmanship of all standing committees and to be resolved of the passage of many bills it promised in the election.

Yet, his death in disgrace will have the effect of restraining the ruling force in their thrust with what President Moon called “New Deal” to wade through the coronavirus disaster with careful observance of public sentiments, which have proved to react most acutely against the audacity of power. 

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at -- Ed.
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