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[Kim Seong-kon] Those who don the mask of justice

June 26, 2024 - 05:34 By Korea Herald

We often confuse justice with revenge and punish someone we hate in the name of justice. Indeed, personal acts of vengeance and political vendettas tend to wear the mask of justice. That is why Michel Foucault warned us; “Justice must always question itself, just as society can exist only by means of the work it does on itself and on its institutions.” Indeed, we should cast doubt on the people who claim that they can bring justice to our society, because what is called “justice” has often been arbitrary and subjective.

Far-left political activists argue that equal distribution of wealth will bring justice. However, in his monumental book, “Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?” Michael Sandel writes, “Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things.” Sandel’s remarks well illuminate the reason for the failure of our left-wing governments in the past. Right-wing people, on the other hand, maintain that law will bring justice, but here Cicero enlightens us with his saying, “more law, less justice.”

We naively believe that justice is a purely benevolent thing. However, it is not always so. For example, “justice” is often used as a convenient tool for dictators to justify their tyranny, which they claim is necessary in order to bring order and righteousness to society. Indeed, dictators always pretend that they are an emblem of justice, deceiving innocent people who gradually believe and accept it as truth.

At the same time, those who fight tyranny also use “justice” as a way to justify their political battles and ambitions. They firmly believe that they are doing the right thing and thus that they represent justice. Just as dictators do, therefore, they do not attach a stigma to violence, vendettas, or collateral damages. Like the dictator Jeanine in the movie “Divergent,” they justify their vehemence by saying that “dark times need extreme measures.”

That is why those who fight dictatorships often resemble the dictators they detest. Indeed, anti-tyranny fighters can easily turn into tyrants themselves while fighting in the name of justice. Montesquieu observed that justice could be tyrannical, saying, “There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice.”

Cambridge Dictionary defines “justice” as “fairness in the way people are dealt with.” By definition, therefore, when we unjustly accuse and persecute someone for ideological reasons, this is far from justice because it does not treat the person fairly. Unfortunately, our left-wing extremists do not seem to understand this definition, since they have unjustly accused so many people of being pro-Japan and pro-dictator collaborators and persecuted them in the name of justice. Although they made some mistakes in the past, many of those listed in the Directory were “treated unjustly and unfairly.”

For example, when they criticized Lee Kwang-su, the first modern Korean writer, as a pro-Japan person, our leftwing diehards never considered the fact that the Japanese police arrested Lee Kwangsu under the charge of pursuing Korea’s independence from Japan. Similarly, these left-wing propagandists have also intentionally ignored the fact that Lee was a patriot who constantly agonized over the future of Korea.

It is widely known that Lee later decided to cooperate with Japan for two reasons. One reason was that it could save the lives of 40 members of the anti-Japan society, Sooyang Dongwoo Hoe, led by the political prisoner Ahn Chang-ho, who died in prison. The other reason was that Lee thought his cooperation with Japan would be beneficial for his country because it never occurred to him that Japan would be defeated in the Pacific War.

In a sense, Lee Kwang-su exhibited the fate of a tormented intellectual’s life in difficult times. He said, “I know I will be criticized, but this is my way.” His daughter, Dr. Lee Chung-wha, offers the following reminiscence about her father when the North Korean soldiers arrested him during the Korean War: “Father, who did not hesitate to write articles defying the government’s policies, was always the object of attack. He was arrested by the Japanese government for instigating the Korean Independence Movement, then he was arrested by the South Korean government for having collaborated with Japan. Now he is an object of persecution for being a sympathizer with Western democracy.”

Looking back upon my own life, I, too, have judged and criticized other people several times in the name of justice. Now I regret it very much and suffer a sense of guilt toward those whom I have inflicted pain upon or disadvantaged. On the contrary, ideology-oriented people never show remorse for their cruelty in ruining other people’s lives. They do not have a sense of guilt, either, even after they drive other people to suffer and die.

Do not be deceived by those who pretend that they represent “justice.” Those people are only seeking vengeance.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.