An employee of the National Office of Investigation enters the agency’s headquarters in Seodaemun District, Seoul, on Feb. 26. (Kim Jung-hyo/The Hankyoreh)
The fate of attorney Chung Sun-sin, whose appointment as National Office of Investigation director was withdrawn after revelations that he had pursued legal action to reverse disciplinary action against his son for bullying, hit a raw nerve with the South Korean public last weekend as it touched on an issue that has long been a trigger for conflict: fairness.
For many, the revelations brought home the fact that stories about abusive behavior in school — such as those seen in the Netflix series “The Glory” — are more than just fiction. They also sparked anger at the way even more abuse ends up inflicted against victims within the framework of the legal system.
Chung’s appointment may have been withdrawn, but the aftershocks continue. For the South Korean public, school bullying is a particularly sensitive issue: not simply a form of fighting among young people, but something on par with a serious crime.
The Chung family’s legal tactics — taking advantage of the father’s status as a senior prosecutor and legal expert at the time to drag the case out for a full year — laid bare how South Korean society operates. Although it proclaims to be a democratic republic with equality of opportunity, the reality is that it is an unequal class-based society where parents’ wealth and power get passed on to their children.
Within a day of his appointment, Chung announced his intent to step down as National Office of Investigation director, with President Yoon Suk-yeol immediately withdrawing the nomination. Behind that response was the public’s sense of betrayal on the issue of fairness, which has been one of Yoon’s political watchwords.
As seen with the controversies over the family of former Minister of Justice Cho Kuk, the revelations surrounding resume-building improprieties by the daughter of current Minister of Justice Han Dong-hoon, and the discovery that former National Assembly lawmaker Kwak Sang-do’s son received a questionable severance pay package of 5 billion won (US$3.8 million), the additional example of another child benefiting from their powerful father’s connections has stirred up feelings of helplessness and disenfranchisement among younger South Koreans.
“This is just one of countless examples that show how powerful people exploit the law in this society, and it also gives a direct glimpse at the class system that operates here,” a 24-year-old university student surnamed Park said of the Chung saga on Monday.
“As you see more and more examples like this, it ends up leaving you feeling disenfranchised as you see the way people with money and power continue to use that to cause suffering for the vulnerable,” Park shared.
The anger was also evident at Seoul National University (SNU), an elite institution with direct and indirect ties to the episode.
“The real double standard is what you see in the People Power Party. What’s the difference between this situation and the Cho Kuk case?” wrote one user on an anonymous SNU community forum on Monday.
“The children of senior officials can engage in things like bullying, drunk driving, entrance exam shenanigans, and gambling, and it all gets covered up, or they receive billions of won in ‘severance pay,’” another user wrote.
“It’s like they’re World Nobles,” they added, referring to the aristocratic figures in the manga series “One Piece.”
A 23-year-old student in the SNU College of Social Sciences said, “People with money and power just go from strength to strength even when they’re guilty of misdeeds, while the have-nots are the victims, yet they’re the ones whose future avenues get closed off. If that isn’t an unfair, unequal society, what is?”
The parents of students have been similarly upset.
A 51-year-old surnamed Kim whose child attends a university in Seoul said, “It really brings home the idea that some children are just blessed with the ‘right parents,’ and you’re just banging on a brick wall.”
“It seems like children are simply taking for granted the idea that it’s ‘all about who your parents are,’ which makes me feel helpless and despondent as a parent,” they added.
Another 51-year-old parent whose child attends SNU said, “I’m just astonished that they have been able to eliminate these sorts of vicious examples of bullying at South Korea’s No. 1 university.”
“It feels like the scores are the only thing that matters. I don’t know what we’re supposed to teach our children,” they said.
Experts said the episode has laid bare the reality of South Korean elites and the way their actions promote inequality in society.
“Bullying in school is definitely an issue that the public reacts sensitively to, but behind that, there are widespread problems with professionals like professors and lawyers who take advantage of their social network to help each other out in different areas of society, including employment and college entrance exams,” said Kim Yun-tae, a sociology professor at Korea University.
“There’s also the feeling of disfranchisement, where people see them as the reason that equal opportunities aren’t available to everyone,” he added.
Lee Byoung-hoon, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University, said the episode “showed us once again how public officials make use of distorted power systems to shield their children.”
“The way in which the parent’s power was used to cover up an issue of abusive behavior in schools clearly shows the class structure system that operates in this society,” he said.
By Ko Byung-chan, staff reporter; Park Ji-young, staff reporter
Please direct questions or comments to [email@example.com]