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[Editorial] Self-serving ex-activists?

DP bill to treat pro-democracy fighters as ‘persons of distinguished service’

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 18, 2023 - 05:30

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In the National Policy Committee of the National Assembly on Thursday, the Democratic Party of Korea, which holds a majority in the Assembly, passed a bill to treat democratization movement contributors as “persons of distinguished service to the state,” amid protest by members of the ruling People Power Party.

In a bid to prevent the opposition party from rushing the bill, the People Power Party requested the creation of a six-member panel under the committee that must deliberate the bill for up to 90 days before voting on whether to drop it or not. But the panel was formed in favor of the Democratic Party when its chairperson who belongs to the majority party appointed a Progressive Party lawmaker as one of three members who belong to minor parties.

The panel consists of three majority party lawmakers including its chairperson and three minor party lawmakers.

The Progressive Party lawmaker personally supports the bill. After all, the majority of the panel members -- three Democratic Party lawmakers and the Progressive Party lawmaker -- voted for the bill and then the National Policy Committee passed it shortly.

The Democratic Party processed the bill to honor pro-democracy fighters without the agreement of the ruling party, which some could say was an undemocratic manner.

Indeed, the title of the bill sounds plausible but its content is absurd.

Up until now, contributors to the April 19 Movement and the May 18 Democratization Movement have been treated under separate laws as persons of distinguished service.

Under the bill, the dead, wounded or convicted in connection with other democratization movements can be recognized as persons of distinguished service to the state if they pass screening by the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs.

Once former pro-democracy activists are recognized as persons of distinguished service to the state, they and their families, including bereaved family members, will receive government support for medical and nursing home expenses. The bill initially included government support in education, employment and loans, but the Democratic Party is said to have crossed them out as criticism mounted.

Under a law enacted in 1999 to compensate participants of democratization movements who suffered death, injury or conviction, 9,844 people have been compensated so far.

If the bill in question becomes law, the ministry will reportedly have to screen more than 800 people already selected to receive compensation. It is questionable if those who have already been compensated need to receive additional benefits.

One problem is that information on persons of distinguished service to democratization and related movements will be made confidential to protect their privacy.

It is hard to understand why public funds would be used to benefit persons of distinguished service and their families when taxpayers are left in the dark about who the recipients are and what contributions they made. It is common sense that distinguished service should be boasted of, not hushed up. People will have no idea about whether the wrong people and their families receive these benefits as persons of distinguished service. This is absurd.

In 2021, the Democratic Party attempted to pass the same bill but withdrew it amid criticism that it proposed the bill to serve the interest of its lawmakers, who fought for democracy when they were university students. Many lawmakers in the party have such backgrounds.

The party has pushed the bill again under a different administration. If the president vetoes it, the party will criticize him politically while emphasizing they did their best for their support base, which includes many former democratization activists.

The democratization movement is not the monopolized property of the opposition party. Its success would have been impossible without the participation of numerous members of the general public. Many citizens went back to everyday life after the nation went through democratic political reforms. They worked hard, making contributions to the development of the country. Meanwhile, some leaders of the movement entered into politics and came into positions of relative power. Now they seem to be showing undemocratic behavior and concern only about their own interests.

Honoring persons of distinguished service to the state must not take the form of opaque preferential treatment. Their names and their achievements must be transparent. The bill could theoretically spawn persons of false distinguished service by offering a legal window for potential misuse of public funds and possible unlawful favors. If it passes the National Assembly, it must be vetoed.