South Korea’s 21st term of the National Assembly is the Behemoth of the 21st century -- it can do anything, bad things mostly. The Book of Job in the Old Testament describes it:
“When the river rages, he is not alarmed; he is secure, though the Jordan should surge against his mouth ...
“Can anyone capture him by the eyes, or trap him and pierce his nose?” (40:23-24)
The new representative body elected in the general election on April 15 has acted in the fashion of a biblical monster, serving the interests of a political group obsessed with consolidating and extending its grip on power, ignoring principles and practices of democracy established through the bumpy seven-decade history of this republic.
Against the 174 “lawmakers” of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and their collaborators from satellite groups, the 100-odd members of the opposition People Power Party are utterly and virtually nonexistent. Last week, the Assembly passed bills including one to establish an agency for investigation of high-ranking officials, a well-designed device to protect rather than prosecute corrupt power holders.
An assortment of other laws were also made -- to restart a probe into the 2011 Sewol ferry disaster, to prohibit acts in disrespect of the May 18, 1980 pro-democracy movement in Gwangju and to ban flying propaganda leaflets over the border to North Korea. Business laws were revised to strengthen the powers of small stockholders and labor unions.
Democratic Party members congratulated each other with laughter and applause when the electronic scoreboard showed the final vote results after days of vehement obstruction from the main opposition party against what it called tools for a return to dictatorial rule. Fear of an “elected dictatorship” actually grew not only among opposition politicians but in the conscientious public.
Why do they need yet another investigation by an independent counsel nine years after the sinking of a 6,800-ton ferry killed 304 people, mostly high-school students on an excursion? Eight exhaustive investigations by seven different state authorities and specially commissioned groups have determined faults in ship maintenance and navigation.
We wonder what else a new review of the tragedy can glean by questioning survivors and crewmembers and officials who have already served time for their negligence. Plausible explanations point to a political scheme that is to bring former President Park Geun-hye out again into public censure along with the political force still paying allegiance to her.
As for the Office of Criminal Investigation for High-ranking Officials, noted jurists see no other purpose than cutting the power of the prosecution, which the present power group all but defines collectively as evildoers. And we know that their condemnation originated from the fact that former President Roh Moo-hyun, their eternal leader, died by suicide in 2009 while under prosecution investigation over corruption charges concerning his family.
So, there was the perennial slogan of “prosecution reform” from Moon Jae-in’s unsuccessful presidential challenge in 2012 through his second, successful campaign in 2017, following the impeachment of Park. The Moon administration had to rely on the existing prosecution body for the purge of old power, and now the goal is to crush Prosecutor-General Yoon Suk-youl as he leads probes into wrongdoings of the new power.
With the creation of the CIO, the fateful task of prosecution reform is half done. Simultaneously, the police system was divided into three separate functions -- national police, autonomous regional police and criminal investigation police -- which effectively relieved the prosecution of its supervisory role in criminal probes. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae has assumed the mission to remove Prosecutor General Yoon and finish prosecution reform.
It is not hard to imagine how the president and his power group will henceforth use the CIO after naming its chief from among candidates recommended by the National Assembly -- actually by the majority ruling party. The opposition veto, originally conceived in the draft, was deleted through the course of legislation. Its investigators can choose at will which high official to punish and whom to protect in accordance with the desires of those in power!
For the past half a year since the 21st Assembly began its first legislative sitting, South Koreans have witnessed how the ruling party with its huge majority has gone about making laws for the leftist administration’s experimental, half-baked policies, in total absence of consultation with the opposition party. One disastrous example was the real estate market control measures that have only resulted in the steep rises of apartment prices in Seoul.
The passage of a bunch of arbitrary bills last week was the climax in the government party’s legislative process for power consolidation. They reminded us of the emergency decrees issued during the Yushin (“revitalizing reform”) era of President Park Chung-hee in the 1970s that made criticism of the dictatorial system a punishable crime.
As he steps into the final 18 months of his five-year term, Moon Jae-in can now look back on his good luck that awarded him presidency by the default of his adversary in the 2016-17 turmoil and again allowed him the chance of gathering increased public trust last spring upon the invasion of the pandemic.
However, the president is squandering any gains from the rash legislation because of his push for prosecution reform that many suspect as a self-protective move. His job approval rating plummeted to the lowest level of 37 percent since inauguration while the Democratic Party’s support rate also fell to below 30 percent at a time when the coronavirus is making a rebound with the arrival of a cold spell.
Again, the fate of the left-wing ruling force will depend on how deeply the opposition will remain disunited, as they have been for the past three years, rather than on their own performance in governing. Tests are coming on both sides in April with by-elections in Seoul and Busan, where cases of sexual misconduct by their former chiefs from the left-wing camp cost one’s life and the other’s office.
Having invented the CIO as the shield for their power, the triumphant group could now concentrate on broad strategies to extend their rule and, immediately, on the forthcoming polls in the nation’s two largest cities. But they are reminded that time will come when they regret that they created the new investigative agency and other protective devices that could be used as shackles for themselves.
The pendulum of political power swings back soon after it reaches one extreme.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was managing editor of The Korea Times in the 1990s. -- Ed.