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The Korean Crisis of Authority
Korean society is facing a sudden crisis of authority. The presidential system based on the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government is being shaken to its roots. “Even a dog gets better treatment than the president in this country,” said Gyeonggi Governor Kim Moon-soo last week, describing the woeful status accorded the nation`s top leader. “Honorable” judges no longer exist in Korean courtrooms, where boos and calls for “proper judgment” are heard.
The already burgeoning distrust and contempt for lawmakers continue to amplify as the “common sense advocate” and Seoul National University Professor Ahn Cheol-soo has emerged as a high-profile leader-wannabe. The high approval ratings enjoyed by opposition parties in recent days are nothing more than a temporary bubble owing to the failures of the ruling party. By the time the next elections are held four or five years from now, the situation could be reversed.
Even religious circles where “keep the faith” should remain the teaching of absolute truth also suffer from the lack thereof. According to a 2011 survey on the credibility of different social sectors conducted by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the religious sector trailed behind the civil society, medical sector, academia, and even large conglomerates. The clerics had to take comfort from the fact that they ranked higher than the administration, National Assembly and the legal profession. In a 2010 survey by the Christian Ethics Movement of Korea, only 17.6 percent of the respondents replied that they trusted the Korean church.
Schools also have been severely hit by the crisis of authority. According to the government statistics, there were seven cases of assault on teachers by students and parents in 2006, but the number increased more than 20-fold to 146 in 2010. Even elementary school students retort to their teachers, “Leave me alone, teacher, because we now have the Students` Rights Ordinance.” The half-price tuition controversy has smeared all universities and branded as criminals everyone working for the institutions of higher learning.
Korea has experienced radical social changes amid rapid nation-building, industrialization and democratization. Still, until now, the social system has never been so rattled, nor has so much ridicule and contempt been voiced against authority. This worrisome phenomenon is partly due to political maneuvers to stir up public anger, but the blame goes basically to those who have managed state affairs and enjoyed power in various sectors.
The dismantlement of established authority may be a trend that reflects the powerful tide of changes that typify our times. Even so, it should be recalled that history has repeatedly proven that a leadership vacuum resulted in an entire society driven into chaos with the most vulnerable classes suffering the most.
The greatest puzzle in the history of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) is how a robust monarchy that flourished under the prominent ruler, King Jeongjo, in the latter half of the 18th century abruptly fell into a state of chaos and eventually relinquished its sovereignty. Joseon enjoyed the greatest economic and cultural prosperity, often dubbed a “renaissance,” during the reign of Jeongjo. After his death in 1800, Joseon began its steep descent.
The death of one competent king should not mean the demise of a nation. Many historians attribute the sudden decline of Joseon to corruption in the ruling class. The queen`s family rose in power and they traded government positions for money. However, the more compelling reason for the dynasty`s disintegration should have been the lack of national authority.
At the time of his accession in 1776, Jeongjo had a fragile base of power so he devoted himself to consolidating monarchical authority. During his 24-year reign, Jeongjo visited his father`s grave as many as 66 times and during his trips he listened to the grievances of his people firsthand. This was a means of displaying the king`s authority. Jeongjo possessed a strong personal charisma and prominent scholarly ability, which overwhelmed his courtiers.
Jeongjo ushered in the golden age of Joseon with his strong power. His son, Sunjo, succeeded to the throne at the age of 10. The powerful in-laws who ruled on his behalf placed the interests of their family before those of the state. With the core of power missing, everyone was busy looking after their personal interests. Random civil riots erupted and the state`s morale plummeted. Joseon fell helplessly in the face of the powerful tide of imperialism that rushed to the Korean shore at this time.
One can only guess the consequences of the current state of disintegrating authority across our society. What seems certain, however, is that a vacuum in state authority invites confusion and distortions. Moreover, when internal power struggle grows increasingly intense ahead of elections, most members of society become oblivious to external situations and overly obsessed with internal affairs.
Unfortunately, these symptoms are already in sight. While the international community is groping for solutions to such imminent issues as global recession and security threats from a rising China, there is hardly any sense of crisis or urgency in Korea. As the current situation evokes sense of déjà vu, I earnestly hope that the tragic history of late Joseon is not repeated.