There’s still one ring to rule them all – at least until you get thrown in jail. It resides in the presidential Blue House in South Korea and it offers the same lesson of the corrupting effects of limitless power over and over again. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy warns of moral corruption perverting almost everyone who is offered power without fear of retribution. It’s a notion that pops up every time a South Korean president is jailed and every time they’re pardoned.
South Korea’s democracy is still trying to shed the leadership paradigm of one man or woman to rule them all. After centuries of emperors, feudal landlords, colonizers and dictators, there’s still a preference for authoritarian social structures. The one ‘strongman’ at the top simplifies cooperation and offers the illusion of total protection. It smoothly reflects the power structure at home where daddy (or mommy) still rules the nest. But as almost every South Korean president since the start of the modern era in 1948 has been jailed, killed or attacked, it might be time to adjust how much power the presidential office receives.
Tolkien shows a few outstanding souls can resist the temptation of the ring – but just barely. In the real world, hoping you’ll vote in a ‘good person’ as the next president gambles your power away in a slot machine that never hits jackpot. Instead, if you set the parameters to dis-incentivize corruption, you can steadily get phenomenal results from a president that is ‘good enough’.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon’s recent proposal to pardon former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye from their prison sentences for the sake of ‘national unity’ struck half the country as the wrong move. Skeptics questioned whether there was a political motive for his upcoming presidential campaign. It certainly seemed he was more eager to unite those who swing both ways politically into a ‘unified’ voting bloc. He was accused of angling for the ‘precious’. Lee, of course, denied the charge.
A Step in the Right Direction
This week President Moon Jae-in officially rejected the pardon proposals for his former rivals. Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye both received jail sentences close to two decades. Letting them out now sends a strong signal that punishments are just for show and that there’s no real deterrent to abuse of power. Without adequate atonement, future seekers of the ‘precious’ will get darker and more bloodthirsty.
Give up the fantasy of “I would never do it that way. If I were president, I would…” Not only is it childish to think you would be impervious power’s seduction, there’s a greater chance that an elf will appear at your door. It’s not time for pardons. Not just because we barely finished handing out the final sentencing. And not just because hearts have yet to heal from injustice. But until there are real threats to abusing power, especially while in office, South Korea will stay on a slow journey to complete its democratization. And if there’s one thing that Koreans won’t accept, it’s being blocked from moving fast.