Monday, July 02, 2007


The Apathy of Korean Society, by Kim Dae-joong

Society lies still. It’s barely breathing, and it doesn’t move. The loudhailers that batter our ear-drums on the streets every day and illegal political strikes staged at the factories do not amount to signs of life, let alone courageous action. They are so much sound and fury, signifying nothing. We need more than this: resistance to injustice, upright criticism of abuse of power.

Amid the absurd spectacle of President Roh Moo-hyun slandering the “damned Constitution” while parrying a rebuke by the National Election Commission with a constitutional suit -- as an “individual” -- we just bemoan our lot, saying, "We've elected the wrong person." The president meddles in the electoral process with his nasty denunciations of opposition presidential contenders, but the NEC has gone silent. The president issues an order to vet the public pledges of opposition presidential contenders, and the Cabinet duly passes it on and officials get busy. When someone hails the president as the "king of the nation," nobody rebukes them. And when the chief executive issues a directive interfering in the stock market, no economic officials remonstrate with him.

Finally, Roh summoned 150 university presidents for a dressing-down, telling them in an accusing tone, "You are the people who have succeeded." And the university heads are silent and answer comes there none. Surely one of them could have asked, "Is there another country where equality and equal opportunity are better guaranteed than one where any high-school graduate who puts his mind it can become president?" Academics who were not present at the meeting and faculty at private universities are set on collective defiance of the university entrance exam formula the president and his education minister want to force on them. The silence of the university presidents at the Cheong Wa Dae meeting that day was a scene of shame, and a glaring example of the apathy that has gripped our intellectuals.

Despite being supreme commander of the armed forces, the president did not show up at a memorial service honoring the dead in an inter-Korean naval clash near the Northern Limit Line, the de-facto sea border between the two Koreas, on its fifth anniversary. At the time, the chief executive was busy at Cheong Wa Dae handing letters of appointment to steering members of the Presidential Committee for the Inspection of Collaborations for Japanese Imperialism and the Advisory on Democratic Peaceful Unification. It was a glaring display of his lack of interest in, and disrespect for, the status and role of our armed forces. Yet no one complained.

Society made no reproof of powerful people who abandon the political party that elected them into office, scramble to disband the party they claimed at its foundation would last 100 years, and discard their responsibility for governance like a pair of worn-out shoes. Even when the very people who will benefit most from our free trade agreement with the U.S. stage strikes in protest against that same FTA, and when downtown Seoul is completely gridlocked in the weekend rush hour due to an illegal demonstration, society seems minded to just let it pass.

In the process of modernization, Korea nurtured a spirit that speaks out on injustice, punishes corruption and condemns abuse of power. Criticism and protest, which have been part of our lives since colonial years, persisted through the years of industrialization and repression by military governments. Ours is a history of the fight against injustice, corruption and political repression based on democracy and the market economy. In our elections and the vetting of public officials, we have built a tradition of zero tolerance, not only for errors and shortcuts on the part of ordinary people but also injustice, corruption and abuse by the powerful. Not even heads of state and their families can escape the dragnet of this spirit. Influential presidential candidates, capable prime minister-nominees and civil servants have tripped over a single mistake or slip of tongue.

Why, then, the present silence and subservience in the face of such threats to the very foundations of society? The intellectuals, officials and bureaucrats who will have to keep the state ticking over even when the administration is replaced should curb abuse of power and devise alternatives, with civil society their ultimate master. But all are resigned to the realities, their vigor drained and their energy depleted. Would it be any wonder if those in power had no respect for Korean citizens and society?

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