By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, Sept. 6 (Yonhap) -- The notion of fairness and inequality is being revisited in South Korea amid President Lee Myung-bak's crusade to address the chronic social problem, a legacy of the country's speedy industrialization and democratization.
Lee's intention is generally worthy, say critics, but what he actually wants and how to reach the abstract goal is still opaque.
In his Liberation Day speech on Aug. 15, Lee declared the creation of a "fair society" as a motto for the latter half of his five-year tenure.
The drive falls in with his campaign to make South Korea an "advanced, top-notch" nation. South Korea achieved industrialization in the 1970s and democratization in the 1980s, but the value of fairness was neglected due to growth-oriented policies at that time.
Public calls have gathered force for narrowing the gap between the haves and the have-nots and breaking the "winner takes all" mentality. The book "A Theory of Justice," authored decades ago by John Rawls, a late former Harvard University professor, has become a bestseller here.
The trend has had an immediate impact on Lee's leadership. Bowing to public pressure, just three weeks after their nomination, prime minister and culture and knowledge economy minister designates bowed out after being accused of serious unethical acts during their confirmation hearings.
Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan was also caught in the net, offering to step down last week after being accused of nepotism over the ministry's recruitment of his daughter to a mid-level post.
"In the past, the foreign minister's case may have been condoned as a longstanding practice. But it is an unacceptable matter by the standards of a fair society," the president said Sunday.
Lee stressed that his fair society policy, albeit painful to social leaders and those with vested power, will eventually help upgrade South Korea's status.
His remarks spawned media speculation of an audit and reform drive against corruption and moral hazards among senior civil servants.
Lee's office, Cheong Wa Dae, dismissed the view, saying the president is not seeking a targeted audit of specific officials or organizations but hoping to establish a strict legal order and law-enforcement system.
Analysts view South Korea's quest for a fair society as a natural trend as it transitions to an advanced nation. They say South Korean people, living in one of the world's most wired countries, have raised the ethical bar for the country's leaders.
"The big direction of Lee's drive is desirable," said Jang Hoon, a professor of political science at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. "But what he means exactly when he talks about a fair society is equivocal."
If he means equal opportunity, it would reflect his right-leaning inclination, but should it mean equality of outcome, it is more of a leftist policy, Jang added.
Political parties are also demanding clear guidelines.
"As the concept of a fair society is abstract and too wide ranging, I think strict criteria are necessary," said Ahn Sang-soo, head of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP). "It would be better to set standards in politics, economy, society, culture and other sectors."
Chung Doo-un, a reform-minded lawmaker at the GNP, said the president's policy for a fair society may well turn into a "yoke" for himself and the ruling bloc for the remainder of his term that ends in early 2013.
For opposition parties, the president's fair society campaign is turning into a newfound weapon to attack the ruling camp.
"Only when the president, the government and the ruling party first behave in a way fit for a fair society, the people will accept it," said Park Jie-won, caretaker leader of the main opposition Democratic Party.
Kim Sung-ho, a political scientist at Seoul-based Yonsei University, cautioned the rival parties against exploiting the fair society drive for political purposes.
"A fair society is sort of a social consensus made through serious discussions," he said. "We need to use this occasion as a chance to start serious discussions on fairness in our society."
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