The nation is faced with a triple crisis. The No. 1 problem, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic, which over the past nine months has seriously transformed South Koreans’ lifestyles. Next is economic gloom, partly from the impact of the coronavirus and partly attributable to the sloppy leftist policies of the Moon Jae-in administration.
And the third and worst is the credibility crisis due to the contrasting words and deeds of politicians. I call it a crisis because it has escalated to a high degree of enmity between the two sides in our sharply polarized society. The audacious, quixotic behavior of those ruling force warriors in lofty government positions is raising the level of hate in society ever higher.
The Korean health authorities have done relatively well in containing the pandemic since last January, with sacrifices on the part of medical workers and spontaneous public cooperation -- the infection rate is way below 0.1 percent of the total population so far. If top policymakers had been quicker to block borders, things would have been better.
Throughout 2020, the national economy got bleaker with worsening youth unemployment and massive closures of small-time businesses, the results of the shortsighted economic guidelines of the Moon administration, which imposed a higher minimum wage and shorter mandatory work hours as part of its populist approach. The state coffers have been drained, and the government is incurring huge debts by dispensing emergency relief funds.
Providing an eerie backdrop to the many setbacks of the present ruling force since 2017, the chiefs of the country’s two largest metropolises and a provincial governor met their downfall as a result of sexual misconduct or alleged sexual misconduct: Ahn Hee-jung of South Chungcheong Province is serving a prison sentence, Oh Geo-don resigned as mayor of Busan and is awaiting criminal prosecution, and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon took his own life.
Cho Kuk, who was justice minister for a month last year, damaged public trust in the Moon Jae-in government more than the above three men put together. His self-contradiction and hypocrisy, revealed in huge discrepancies between what he said and wrote as the champion liberal ideologue and what he did in his private life, quickly destroyed him.
Choo Mi-ae, who succeeded Cho in September last year, was the worst choice for the job because she was hardly qualified for her mission, “prosecution reform,” which originally meant depoliticizing prosecutors and ensuring that they would respect human rights at every stage of the criminal process. But President Moon had a different idea.
From the start, the onetime judge, who was elected to the National Assembly five times, made it clear that her task was to take control of the prosecution away from Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, who was then bent on punishing Cho Kuk and other Moon aides accused of abuse of power and financial misdeeds. Yet she could not anticipate that she would face the harshest storm of her life because of her dear child.
While Choo was maneuvering to virtually incapacitate Yoon, banishing his close associates to remote offices and research posts and dismantling the investigation apparatuses under his direct control, oppositionists and the mainstream print media, invariably taking the conservative line, had their heyday exploring the hidden side of the justice minister with abundant tips from a sympathetic public.
A whistleblower who had served in the same KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the US Army) unit in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul, as Choo’s son, one Pfc. Seo, exposed the irregular extension of Seo’s sick leave in 2017. Having his leave extended by a phone call from home, Seo eventually had a total of 58 days of furlough, nearly twice the norm for an enlisted man during his 22-month mandatory service. Choo was then the leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.
It was not a spying case, nor the theft of a weapon, but the common offense of absence without leave. Yet the media and the main opposition party were flooded with tips and complaints from angry young people who were repulsed at the bending of military rules for a person of privilege.
One could compare it to the Dreyfus affair in late-19th century France, as for weeks major newspapers, broadcasters and internet media reported details of how the minister’s son was helped by third persons who asked officers in charge to extend the soldier’s leave after knee surgery. Social injustice is the common theme in these cases, but the difference is that the victims here are all the young men eligible for military service.
The societal noise over a soldier’s leave was exacerbated by inappropriate comments in defense of the justice minister from pro-government individuals, which instantly invited a spate of retorts. In the National Assembly, the government interpellation session last week to deliberate on a supplementary budget was mostly consumed by debates on Seo’s leave, sparing little time for discussion of emergency relief after floods and during a pandemic.
Rep. Shin Won-sik of the People Power Party, a retired three-star Army general, told a plenary session: “Almost all women in this country are daughters of men who once were soldiers, they fall in love with and marry men who once were soldiers, and they all become mothers of men who are to serve in the military. … This is why privileged treatment of a soldier infuriates them all.”
As one of these men, I believe that Minister Choo should have apologized for her son, instead of trying to defend him, at an early stage. She lost more public trust in the present government than she earned with her distorted pursuit of prosecution reform and her maternal protection of her son in uniform. By unofficially using her official prestige, she would undoubtedly cost her party millions of votes if a general election were held today.
President Moon has kept mum on this affair. He seemed to be obliquely admonishing anyone who might be involved in influence peddling when he mentioned the word “gongjeong” -- which may be translated as “justice” or “fairness” -- as many as 37 times in his half-hour speech on the Blue House lawn last week for the first Youth Day.
He must like justice as a theme of social morality, but the head of state will only be worsening the credibility crisis in our society as long as he keeps Choo Mi-ae as minister of justice.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.