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(EDITORIAL from the Korea Times on Aug. 3)
Democracy in retreat
-Government must not make light of popular demands-

Koreans boast ― and the world recognizes ― that they have accomplished both industrialization and democratization in just half a century.

   But such rapid economic and political development has not been possible without some adverse effects. Regarding the economy, the widening income gap has reached a stage that denies even equal opportunity. And Korea’s democracy remains largely a formality and a set of procedures, not backed up by mature awareness and practices.

   Especially worrisome is the setback to democracy, which began during the previous Lee Myung-bak administration. The conservative government made decisions that greatly affected people’s lives, such as importing tainted beef and turning rivers into reservoirs, or a cross-country canal, secretly and without consent from voters. Koreans felt deceived by their own elected leader.

   The National Intelligence Service, led by a confidant of Lee, spied on private citizens critical of the government, and stifled people’s freedom of expression. The spy agency went so far as to meddle in politics and elections, as confirmed by the prosecution.

   When popular uproar forced political parties to investigate its misdeeds, the NIS made an even more glaring violation of democratic principles by opening up highly classified records of the inter-Korean summit.

   More seriously, it was the NIS chief appointed by the incumbent president that committed these egregious wrongdoings. The NIS is under the direct control of the president, so it is hard to think that he could have done so without reporting to, or getting the approval of, President Park Geun-hye. Still President Park has shown few signs of regrets to the people, and even left the job of reforming the spy agency to those who broke it.

   We don’t think Park should take responsibility for the NIS agents’ electoral maneuvers made under the preceding administration. But she must at least admit her mistakes of denying such activities as a candidate, and apologize for the disclosure of summit records made under her own supervision, dismiss her spymaster and move on to overhaul the spy agency to fundamentally prevent it from intervening in domestic politics. Nothing less will placate the escalating popular anger and dispel their deepening doubts about the legitimacy of her presidency.

   What President Park and her party are doing is going exactly in the opposite direction. The ruling Saenuri Party has all but sabotaged the Assembly probes into the NIS, about which Cheong Wa Dae has kept silent, spawning suspicions that the latter might have secretly controlled it. After the frustrated minority Democratic Party took to the street, Saenuri Party officials ridiculed them, saying people would not sympathize with the opposition’s calls for democratizing the country that has long been democratized.

   But President Park and her party must think about why students have staged candlelit vigils in Seoul Plaza for more than a month, and university professors issued a declaration on the current state of affairs while and an increasing number of Catholic priests and Buddhist monks are joining the dissenting intellectuals.

   Koreans, disillusioned with two liberal governments, mostly because of their economic incompetency, gave chances to conservatives in two consecutive elections, but are now finding that they might lose something more important than the economy ― their hard-won democracy.

   If President Park remains complacent with her high approval rating and underestimates grass root resentment about the ruling camp’s trifling with democratic principles, she will regret her misjudgment much sooner than expected.

   It’s time for the nation’s first female leader to think deep ― and act fast.