The Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI) had been the “brain” of the Roh Moo-hyun administration. When he became president-elect, Roh commissioned SERI to develop a 400-page report covering “National Tasks and Agenda on State Management.” Proposed agenda included “achieving 20,000 per capital income,” positioning Korea as the hub of Northeast Asia and the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Jeong Tae-in, economic affairs secretary for the former president, explained that the commission was made because “the 386 generation had a strong sense of justice, but lacked professional knowledge on economic affairs.”
Perhaps they found it pitiful that a left-winged government would seek guidance from a chaebol-run think-thank. The People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) delivered a report covering 90 policy tasks as soon as President Moon Jae-in took office last May. Soon after, key agenda, including amendments to the Minimum Wage Act and the General Real Estate Act, the establishment of the Independent Investigative Agency against high-ranking public officials, were reflected in the top 100 national agenda announced by the government.
It would have been nicer if such guidance had ended there. The liberal activist group members started attaining key public posts. Perhaps out of a guilty conscience of failing to support the Roh administration properly, the PSPD failed to exhibit the prudence that they had previously shown in the Roh administration, towards the issue of whether it would be proper for civic groups to intervene in state affairs. Key posts at the South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, including Presidential Secretary of Policy Affairs, Senior Secretary for Civil Affairs, Senior Secretary for Social Policy and the Special Commission on Fiscal Reform, have been filled by former PSPD people. The same goes for cabinet posts such as the heads of the Fair Trade Commission, Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission. Disqualified candidates, including the head of the Financial Supervisory Service, Minister of Justice and the Minister of Employment and Labor, are also from the PSPD. Some even say that the government is not led by the Democratic Party, but by the activist group.
As the PSPD seized power, it neglected its role of criticizing the government. While the activist group reported 15 police officers on grounds of disturbing the investigation of the online opinion rigging of the former conservative administrations, it remains silent on the recent “Druking scandal,” an illegal manipulation of online opinions by a ruling party member. The PSPD did not even utter a word about Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Cho Guk, who has been criticized for his incompetence of appointing key public posts. Regarding news reports that former Financial Supervisory Service chief Kim Ki-sik had gone on multiple paid overseas trips, the PSPD commented that it was “regrettable,” but not as a joint statement but in a message sent to its members. “A society advances only when various social groups are independent from power. Just as soldiers and conglomerates should not seize power, civic groups should heed faithfully to its rule as a watchdog and refrain from gaining power,” said Kim Hyung-joon, politics professor at Myongji University.
The decline of the PSPD as a leading civic group is also a great loss for the society as a whole. According to the Korea Institute of Public Administration, which tracked credibility in various parts of society, the ratio of people who replied that they do not trust civic groups increased from 49.5 percent in 2013 to 53.7 percent in 2017. The ratio of people viewing civic groups as “dishonest” grew from 52.8 percent to 57.5 percent. Netizens make sarcastic remarks such as “The PSPD is the most prestigious institution for success” and “If you want to succeed, work for the PSPD to build your profile.”
The PSPD was definitely not a place where people with desire to succeed would linger around and seek for such opportunities. Since its foundation in 1994, the activist group played critical roles in the history of Korea’s advancement, promoting the enactment of key laws including the Korean National Basic Living Security Act (1999), Anti-Corruption Act (2001) and Securities Class Action Lawsuit Act (2003). “When civic groups join hands with the government, their political opinions can impact others and erode public confidence,” said Seoul Major Park Won-soon, who is running for his third term, once said when he was PSPD Commissioner in 2003. “What would happen if the Roh Moo-hyun administration fails? The term of the government is finite, but civil movement should go on forever. They cannot share the same fate.”