Controversy swirls around a ruling party bill to give preferential treatment to past pro-democracy activists and their families.
The bill to enact the law on the preferential treatment of former pro-democracy activists was proposed by Rep. Woo Won-shik of the Democratic Party of Korea and 19 other lawmakers on Sept. 23.
It targets 829 people who died, went missing or were disabled in connection with pro-democracy movements, and their families. They are among pro-democracy activists found eligible for compensation by a relevant committee created in 2000 to restore their honor.
The preferential treatment covers a wide range of fields including education, employment, medical service and housing.
The bill requires universities to set aside certain percentages of their total entrance quotas for the admission of their children and to enroll them if they apply.
The government would also subsidize their tuition at middle school, high school and university.
The bill also requires not only public institutions but also private companies over a certain size to hire them or add extra points to their scores in recruitment tests. Public institutions include national agencies, provincial governments, military units and state enterprises.
Children of the pro-democracy protesters can also receive benefits in finance and housing, including long-term, low-interest mortgages.
The preferential treatment described is similar to that given to patriotic martyrs.
In explaining the purpose of the bill, Woo raised issue with the fairness of preferential treatment of former pro-democracy activists.
Those related to only two pro-democracy movements -- those that broke out on April 19 in 1960 and on May 18 in 1980 -- receive preferential treatment under relevant laws, but not those related to other pro-democracy movements, he noted.
Former pro-democracy activists deserve respect. The government can compensate those who suffered damage while fighting for democracy.
The level of privilege is acceptable if it is to grant scholarship to children of former pro-democracy fighters. But it is questionable whether it is still fair to expand compensation beyond scholarship to university admission, employment, housing finance and others.
Those privileges either take opportunities from others or put them at comparative disadvantage. The Korean people, particularly the young generation, are very sensitive to the issue of fairness in university entrance and employment, among other things.
The bill drew more than 8,000 critical comments on a National Assembly website that discloses proposed bills. People criticized it for “discriminating against them reversely” and “attempting to create a special noble class in the society.”
As a matter of fact, the public have already cast doubt on the fairness of university entrance systems after news broke out that Yonsei University has admitted 18 children of former pro-democracy activists since 2018 through special screening.
Last month, a Justice Party lawmaker criticized those lawmakers of the ruling party who take pride in leading the democratization movement in 1987. She said that after taking power, they have protected their vested interests, becoming the kind of people that they had fought against. Most people would agree.
People would not have joined pro-democracy movements with a view to creating a society where their children would receive preferential treatment. If they did, that is an insult to the movements.
Lawmakers of the ruling party need to ask themselves whether they take it for granted that they should receive preferential treatment for democratization movement.
When they chanted slogans on the streets, many other people sweated to industrialize Korea. Though they enjoy the wealth built with the blood and sweat of industrial workers, they tend to treat the leaders of Korea’s industrialization as targets to be reformed. They should look back on whether those who died or were disabled in connection with industrialization are being treated fairly.
Problem is that former democratization activists are using power to seek their own interests after they took power. They emphasize that they fought to eliminate foul play, privilege and unfairness, but they are trying to institutionalize these evils.
The bill raises questions again about the fairness championed by President Moon Jae-in.