Disease control authorities complain that their fight against the coronavirus is most seriously disrupted when people conceal their contact with the sources of infection. These cheaters want to avoid the trouble of a two-week quarantine because they need to continue to work and earn a living. About a quarter of total infections cannot be traced to their origins.
In the early days of the pandemic in this country, members of a heavily infected Christian sect in Daegu were blamed for failing to report their whereabouts correctly to authorities, and believers in another church in Seoul showed similar neglect. These religious people chose to forget about epidemic prevention protocols so as not to compromise their worship services.
Different individuals may have compelling reasons for defying official guidelines. But frequent reports of quarantine delays due to people’s evasion of voluntary testing lead us to question the level of public morals in Korea now. In plain words, we wonder how they can risk lying to others in pursuit of private interests at such a time of difficulty.
The Republic of Korea may have its fair share of liars in society, but some pessimistic theories we hear these days have it that our country has a relatively high incidence of fraud, perjury, false accusation and other crimes based on deceit.
Knowledgeable people tend to compare our criminal statistics with those of the nearest neighbor Japan, which has a reputation for strong public morality. A research team at Seoul National University Law School produced a paper last year revealing a surprising contrast: In 2017, there were 1,930 perjury cases (charges filed) in Korea against just eight in Japan; 3,690 against 37 of false accusation; and 231,489 against 42,571 of fraud.
Broadcasting the news, YTN TV cautioned that differences in the criminal prosecution systems between the two countries need to be considered. It was explained that in Japan, people tend to seek to resolve disputes through arbitration or civil procedures, while Koreans quickly run to the police or prosecutors when they experienced personal losses.
I am not particularly proud of the litigious trend of the Korean people, so we need to scrutinize the backgrounds of the many disputes in our society, predominantly arising from untruthfulness in human relations. Lying is a big problem between individuals and even worse between the state authorities and citizens, between the government and the governed.
While dishonest people cause so much trouble to health officials and medical personnel by hampering efforts to contain the coronavirus, the words and deeds of some dishonest politicians keep the nation in turmoil. These years, long before the pandemic emerged, indiscretions by some figures at the center of power stirred public sentiment with their unconcealed audacity, hypocrisy and egotism.
Prosecutors have wrapped up the case of one former Pfc. Seo, son of Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, whom whistleblowers accused of abusing the influence of his mother, who in 2017 was head of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, to extend his leave. While they dismissed the ex-soldier and his mother of violating any law, the Seoul prosecution confirmed that she did ask her parliamentary assistant to contact officers of her son’s unit.
The media counted Minister Choo asserting 27 times that she did not help her son in any way get his furlough extended from 10 to 24 days in National Assembly interpellation sessions. “I never did it,” she said and repeated, “I did not need to do so.” Yet, the prosecution revealed that she had texted the phone number of the officer in charge to one of her aides.
Even though the mother and son avoided criminal prosecution, they could not get their names cleared of dishonesty. Watching TV broadcasts portray the image of a smartphone screen showing the officer’s phone number sent from the minister, people have made their own judgment about her personal integrity.
Struggling to overcome the pandemic, they find it absurd to see the official chastising of people hiding their contact with the infected, on one hand, and the legal exoneration of the justice minister and her son after several months of investigation into the controversial extension of a military leave, on the other. The Seoul city government is even considering levying fines of tens of millions won from each of those who deliberately disrupted quarantine efforts.
The trials of Cho Kuk, who held the office of justice minister for a month before Choo, are underway on multiple charges, including forgery of documents in collaboration with his wife to help their children enter desired schools. True to the litigious tendency of his compatriots, Cho has filed defamation suits against some critics and journalists, demanding compensation in hundreds of millions of won.
To make a triumvirate of public scorn, Rep. Yoon Mi-hyang joins the present and former justice ministers for her alleged diverting of donations to the euphemistically labeled “comfort women” enslaved for sexual service by the Japanese Army in World War II. Choo Mi-ae’s brazen attitude drew public attention because she currently directs the government push for “prosecution reform,” effectively a process to classify prosecutors who are loyal to the power and those who are not.
Over the past 3 1/2 years, the left-wing administration has increasingly impressed beholders with self-contradictions. Top of the pile is President Moon Jae-in, who is mainly criticized for failing to carry out election pledges he made in 2017.
It has become fashionable among his critics these days to recite roughly 30 items of policy commitments Moon had offered during the short campaign after the ouster of Park Geun-hye and to point out no corresponding achievement. In bitter sarcasm, they illustrate one lone exception, which was his most important promise: “to make the nation one that the people had never experienced before.”
During the long Chuseok holiday last week, people celebrated the Full Moon Festival with a great spectacle they had never seen before. Some 300 police buses and 15,000 police troops completely sealed the Gwanghwamun Square and Taepyeong-ro boulevard to hold back protesters under the pretext of preventing the spread of coronavirus.
Popular government critic Chin Jung-kwon called it the “Jae-in Fortress.” To me, it looked like a wall to defend against people’s march toward a trustworthy government, rather than against the pandemic.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was managing editor of the Korea Times in the 1990s and a Reuters correspondent in Seoul earlier. -- Ed,