Published on June 4th, 2012 | by Doug Stuber
Human Rights Prize Winner Mun Jeong-hyeon
By Doug Stuber and Song Min-young
Photos courtesy of the May 18 Memorial Foundation and Doug Stuber
A hands-on, street-level, Catholic activist, the emotional backbone of the 5.18 movement as it happened — a man who has also lived in Gangjeong, Jeju Island since 2011 in solidarity with the protestors who oppose the Navy base that is being set up as a US Navy refueling center — is the 2012 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights winner.
Father Mun Jeong-hyeon is well known for his uncompromising stance on all human rights, democracy and peace issues. As an activist, he has paid dues in the form of broken bones, jail time and more jail time. In the struggle for Korean democracy, he organized the Catholic Priests’ Organization for Justice and joined countless protests against the 1970s dictators who killed South Korean pro-democracy organizers.
The day before receiving the prize, Father Mun gave an emotional press conference, first addressing the protestors in Gangjeong. “The government has forced this decision on the people, ruining a beautiful, scenic town without so much as a hearing…this is a return to the time of dictatorial decisions. The protesters get arrested, are freed, and go right back and get arrested again,” he said. “After the recent election, the police ignored Gangjeong village.”
Returning to his previous efforts, one journalist asked him about his time in jail with Kim Dae-jung in 1976. He had an unexpected response: “While there, the police asked me to join a political party, but I turned them down.”
One imagines Father Mun would not join any political party, no matter how democratic, peace-oriented and full of justice it was, on the principle that politics always ends up corrupted.
“The reality of 5.18 gets distorted a lot; today’s youth should be told the truth,” he said, a bit miffed that he only gets asked easy questions and that journalists don’t help in his education by asking hard questions. So one asked him about President Lee Myung-bak. “I think the Lee administration has been so dark that he might end up being arrested,” Father Mun said.
Earlier in the day, two keynote speakers at the 2012 Gwangju Asia Culture Forum had plenty to say about how the gap between rich and poor, as well as the domination of government, society and court by the wealthier members of society, has subjected “democracies” to the type of dictatorial decisions seen under Lee Myung-bak while simultaneously using phrases like “human rights”, “pro-justice”, and “democracy” to steal democracy for the rich, as Indonesian activist Poengky lndarti pointed out in her speech. Lately she has been monitoring court verdicts in Indonesia as politically-motivated legal results. For example, the 2010 US Supreme court decision to allow corporations to donate as much money as they want to campaigns is a prime example of how fascist tendencies infiltrate societies.
“Fourteen years after reform, the situation in Indonesia is not much changed. Instead, we can see injustice everywhere: massive corruption, anti-pluralism, a pro-capitalist society, violence perpetrated by security forces and gangsters, oppression by the government in the name of democracy, conservative groups increasing and the perpetrators of human rights abuses not being brought to justice,” she said in her speech.
For his part, Duksung Women’s University professor Han Sang-gwon used his clout as a permanent member of both the Solidarity for Historical Justice and Korean Progressive Academy Council to plead for a righteous change in world society, while also calling to task governments who kowtow to big money while ignoring the needs of their own impoverished masses. When money is used to promulgate war and bail out already rich bankers and insurance companies, the will of the majority is trampled, while tax revenues get sucked up by the rich.
“The exercise of property rights shall conform to the public welfare” (Article 23-2 of the R.O.K. Constitution). What this means, he continued, is “the right to live of the majority precedes the private ownership of property by the minority.”
Han used this as an introduction to article 119.2 which was “provided to prevent the unequal distribution of wealth by conglomerates and politically and economically harmful consequences in the process of rapid economic growth.” His belief that the Chaebol (conglomerate companies) are hazardous to the potential for an expanding middle class is backed by statistics. The largest eight Chaebol companies alone account for 60 percent of the R.O.K. Gross Domestic Product, while providing less than 5 percent of Koreans’ jobs. Were they to employ even 30 percent of Korea while raking in 60 percent of the money, university graduates and the middle class would both be better off.
So this year’s Gwangju Asia Culture Forum expanded its previous peace, human rights and democracy issues by delving into both law and economics. In one session, law professor Han Sung-hie explained that his watchdog group monitors judicial verdicts, using well-known phrases like “Ignorance of the law is not a defense,” but changed to “No law can be excused if it ignores the rules and needs of the people.”
“Democracy says law should reflect and be responsive to the will of the people. And to make this change we must use media campaigns, education and judge the verdicts on our own. If the judge[ments] can’t be changed, then who rules the law?” He called the current problems in the R.O.K. and elsewhere a “Jurisdocracy” – a failure because judges and legislators make judgments politically, and that in Korea, in his estimation, judges form cartels with district attorneys and lawyers, allowing the leader of the cartel to determine the outcome of court cases by telling the judge how to rule.
“Power politics by judges is famous in France and the United States where justice is biased, favoring capital rich people and developers. This denies due process to lower-class people and allows the judges to own the law and to make decisions that favor themselves. Manipulated verdicts have been discovered in Korea,” Han said emotionally. “The public is supposed to have a place to voice its concerns in the courts, unless the judges don’t listen.”
“The logic and analysis of fields outside law is used to monitor the courts in Korea, he continued. Non Government Organization activists, lawyers, law professors, and journalists use a variety of reasoning skills to analyze and monitor cases of over-use and abuse of power by judges,” he said.
Father Mun was in accordance in his acceptance speech for winning the May 18 Memorial Foundation’s 2012 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights. When he heard that he had won the award, he said, “I thought, how could I dare to receive the prize while I am alive, in that the prize was made to remember the dedication and sacrifice of victims from the Gwangju uprising. I recalled those fighting for democracy including Park Jong-chul, Lee Han-youl, Cho Sung-man and many people I met on the streets. All of them are important and unforgettable. I could not be here without them.”
Then he noted the loss of democracy when the elite control entire countries: “Currently, one percent representing money and power are seriously threatening the 99 percent representing democracy. Corruption and self-righteousness of the haves is serious. The value of democracy that has been achieved with blood and sacrifice is being neglected. Life and peace are being gravely undermined. If we do not establish true democracy in our societies, human beings and nature will be irreversibly destroyed. We should not accept and adapt to the unjust reality but fight against it by gathering wisdom and courage.”