You don’t have to be a Stoic to understand what Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius said: “Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.” Some South Korean elites, however, are doing the exact opposite to defend their wayward children.
A striking example is the controversy surrounding Chung Sun-sin, 57, who was appointed Friday to head the National Office of Investigation, only to resign Saturday over his son’s bullying in high school that had reportedly caused the victim to attempt suicide.
Even though Chung asked for forgiveness from the victim and his parents for what his son did, his apology was not well received, as his past actions tell a totally different story.
What particularly infuriated the public, given a firestorm of angry online comments from those upset about the bullying episode, is that Chung apparently went overboard to defend his unrepentant son with his legal expertise -- something that is unthinkable for most Korean parents, except for some powerful elites with a twisted mindset about their privilege and professional careers.
Chung’s resignation under mounting pressure lays bare two critical problems: the personnel choices of President Yoon Suk Yeol and the chronic abuse of power by those in high positions against innocent people.
Chung was not supposed to be appointed for the NOI in the first place. He had worked for the prosecution for about 20 years before becoming a lawyer, and it seems clear that his appointment to head the NOI in charge of commanding police investigation forces nationwide was inappropriate.
As part of reform measures, South Korea deprived the prosecution service of its authority to direct police investigations in 2021. The separation of investigative powers, however, could be compromised if the former prosecutor Chung -- instead of a figure from the police -- takes the helm of the NOI.
It is also no surprise that Yoon’s appointment of Chung is under fire, as both had worked together as prosecutors in the past. Since his inauguration, Yoon has been accused of appointing former prosecutors in key government posts -- including the National Intelligence Service and the Financial Supervisory Service -- without considering their necessary qualifications for these posts. Chung’s appointment, therefore, was seen as another case of Yoon’s diehard preference for prosecutors in his personnel choices.
The police also responded negatively to Chung’s appointment. An internal bulletin board of the police was inundated with complaints about the prospect that a prosecutor-turned-lawyer would lead the police’s investigative organization.
Along with the prosecutor-turned-president’s penchant for favoring his former colleagues, the presidential office’s failure to filter out critical aspects of a candidate in advance for a high-ranking position is being criticized as well.
As important as the political repercussions of Chung’s resignation is the harsh reality in Korea that those with power can get away with shameless acts, while the powerless suffer the most.
The bullying of Chung’s son in school was cruel and shameless in itself, and what Chung did for his remorseless son was equally regrettable. School records show that Chung’s son verbally abused the victim for eight months from May 2017, and was ordered to transfer schools in March 2018.
Instead of transferring his son to another school, Chung filed lawsuits to protest the school's order all the way to the Supreme Court. As a result, for nearly one year, Chung got his son to study in the same school with the victim, who suffered from PTSD and panic disorder, and even attempted suicide due to the bullying.
According to the court ruling, Chung’s son denied committing verbal abuse against the victim, and did not even issue a proper written apology. One teacher at the school was quoted as saying: “We think (Chung’s son) did not regret his actions at all.”
Chung’s parents also filed an injunction request for the school’s order that he should complete a volunteer program -- citing the possibility that such a penalty would negatively affect his academic activities. Their claim was not only selfish but also preposterous, given that the victim’s academic life was ruined.
Before Chung tendered his resignation, Rep. Park Hong-geun, floor leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, said, “The controversy over the school bullying by Chung’s son is a representative case in which Korean parents’ power directly affects their children and even covers up their wrongdoings.”
Chung’s son was transferred to another school in February 2019 after a yearlong delay due to his parents’ distorted efforts. In 2020, Chung’s son entered the top-notch Seoul National University, a key gateway to become a member of the country’s future power elite. In contrast, the victim of his bullying is still struggling with trauma and is unable to continue his studies -- a disheartening reminder of the deep-rooted problems in Korean society.