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Opinion

[Kim Seong-kon] Driving under the influence in Korea

Recently in Seoul, a Taiwanese student tragically died of a traffic accident caused by a drunk driver, while she was crossing the street during the “Walk” signal. It was heartbreaking to think about the young, promising student who died in a foreign country because of an insolent drunk driver. Some time ago, another drunk driver tragically killed an entire family in another car. A few weeks ago, a drunk police officer crashed his car in a rice field. The above incidents show us how common “driving under the influence” is in Korea.

In Korea, drunk drivers are lurking everywhere and you never know when they will pop up and hit your car. Drunk drivers recklessly drive even in school zones, injuring and killing our young children. In fact, drunk driving is a chronic disease in Korea because Koreans do not attach a stigma to heavy drinking, which they mistakenly think of as a manly behavior. As some foreign observers have pointed out, drinking is a national pastime in Korea. Thus, Koreans will not quit drunk driving unless the government comes up with some extremely strong measures.

Perhaps the only “cure” comes in the form of a severe penalty. The problem is that the penalty for driving under the influence is so light that many Koreans do not take it seriously. Two years ago, the National Assembly passed the “Yoon Chang-ho law” to increase sentencing in court drastically for DUI offenses. Nevertheless, drunk drivers still get away with a light sentence due to the excessive leniency of our judges. In fact, our judges tend to become gratuitously generous and needlessly forgiving when they find a defendant was drunk when he committed an accused crime.

In many advanced countries, however, DUI is a major crime and punished severely. The United States, too, does not tolerate DUIs. In most states, it is punishable by around six months to a year in jail. Authorities could also revoke an offender’s driver license, meaning one’s life would be practically over because losing a driver’s license in America is like losing your legs, figuratively speaking. America is such a vast country that you cannot do anything without driving. To make matters worse, there’s also the arrest record.

In fact, killing people while driving under the influence is akin to committing murder, making your car the murder weapon. It is bad because you are driving, knowing that you may kill others. Therefore, you should be responsible for your action and take the consequences. If the Korean court would let drivers know that a DUI is as bad as manslaughter or second-degree murder by punishing these infractions accordingly, it could significantly reduce the incidences of DUIs in Korea. Otherwise, they will persist and tragic incidents will continue to occur.

The frequency of DUI incidents in our society reminds us of our politicians who are running our country. Running a country resembles driving a bus loaded with passengers. In fact, many of our former presidents claimed that they were skillful drivers on rough roads. Amusingly, however, Koreans have compared them to unlicensed, student, reckless, drowsy, hit-and-run and speeding drivers, all of whom endanger the safety of passengers. In addition, among our ex-presidents were those who drove in the wrong lane, who made an illegal left turn or U-turn, or who drove the opposite way down a one-way street, risking the lives of the passengers.

To the long list of unreliable drivers, we should add the DUI driver as well. If a political leader is running a nation under the influence of extreme left or right ideology, he will be like a DUI driver who will eventually crash the bus, injuring and killing the passengers onboard. A driver must be sober and is not supposed to drive under any influence. The problem is that extreme ideologies are like narcotics or alcohol that impairs the driver’s judgment and cripples his ability to reason.

Watching the recent clash between the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office, the Korean people wonder if their politicians are like drivers under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. The leader of a government institution should be free from political ideologies. Otherwise, he or she will create a mayhem that will result in annihilation. A good driver’s primary concern always should be the safety of passengers, not showing off his or her driving skill.

These days, foreigners who care about Korea, too, are concerned about the safety and destination of the bus named South Korea. We must convince the world that our navigator is all right and our driver is reliable, not under the influence. The paths ahead are narrow and bumpy and yet, we strongly hope that our driver has a right mind that he can steer us in the right direction. We can only hope that our driver is not driving under the influence. 


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.
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