It has been long discussed whether the system of a country decides the character of its people. History has already proven that a democratic political system, where the people govern their country through their elected officials and the economy is left to the free markets, is generally the most successful of all political systems. This is not to say that democracy is free of faults. But it still rings true that no system better than democracy has been found on Earth.
The world could not hide its astonishment upon the adoption of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787 in Philadelphia. Until then most countries were ruled by a monarchy, where a single leader held power over everything in the country, including the lives of his citizens. It was even said that a monarch owned the birds that flew over his land.
However, under this new Constitution the people elected a president every four years, as well as representatives to Congress (whose numbers were determined by population size) to make the laws, and judges (not monarchs) would decide judicial matters. This stunned a lot of people; even at the time, there was a movement in the fledgling U.S. to put a member of the Russian royal family in charge, claiming that the Constitution gave the ignorant masses unlimited power. But in the end, the Constitution, created by the pivotal efforts of the 55 delegates from the 13 states which signed the Declaration of Independence, was ratified nationwide.
Some inherent problems of a democratic political system have become apparent. The most outstanding is the disparity between the rich and the poor. Though the Constitution emphasized the equality of people, abilities are not created equal, and the really unlucky found themselves left behind and in poverty. This led to the Socialist and Communist movements, and in Russia an egalitarian system where the country was governed by a committee of the people instead of a monarch took hold rapidly. However, even this system became an autocracy in the end, and Communism has slowly disappeared from the earth.
North Korea is the only major remnant, but even its system is not real Communism, but an autocratic monarchy where power is hereditary. North Korea, which rejects free market economy and deprives its people of suffrage, has become one of the poorest countries in the world.
On the other hand, the U.S., which introduced democracy, has become the representative of democracy and the richest country in the world. It drew the envy of the world, and every country began to copy its system. Numerous laws passed as the experience of democracy accumulated, and as the character of the nation was formed and changed by these laws, the unique American system began to stabilize.
Perhaps one unforeseen consequence of the principle that everyone is equal before the law is that the U.S. has become increasingly a country managed by law and lawyers, and where anyone who breaks a law may face stiff penalties regardless of the broader context. Contrary to this, Korea developed into a country governed by the law but with its unique humanistic tradition, under the principle that the people do not have to abide by bad laws. Abusing this has led to a lawless society where the police get beaten and violence occurs in streets, and even in the National Assembly, where laws are made.
Watching the Korean protesters against U.S. beef importation beating up policemen in the public streets of downtown Seoul became an everyday scene. However, when these same violent protesters came to the U.S. to protest, they held a quiet protest following police orders without complaint. I thought that the strict adherence of law and order in America led to this behavioral change. It seemed likely that they acted like meek little lambs because of the U.S. police’s reputation of shooting those that didn’t follow their instructions.
It was funny to see Americans frowning and sneering at the protesters, who had spent so much money only to march quietly on the sidewalks holding picket signs but not making any sounds, wondering why they even came to the U.S. to protest at such high cost of money and time. The protest was a complete failure; I was told that the protesters went sightseeing the next day and returned to Korea. A few days later I saw the returned protesters pushing and beating the police once again on Korean TV, as though they were making up for lost time in the U.S.
In America, both parties have dedicated major efforts toward solving the problem of crime. The Democrats poured hundreds of millions of dollars into crime prevention, claiming that prisoners should be rehabilitated to adapt to society. The Republican Party poured hundreds of millions of dollars into crime punishment, claiming that more policemen should be hired and more prisons should be built. Furthermore, the Republican Party strongly supports capital punishment and has regularly proposed a bill to limit appeals by those sentenced to death.
H.R.2703, H.R.729 and H.R.4029 are the exemplary bills proposed by the Republican Party. These bills propose that Americans a) build more prisons, increase the number of police officers and correction officers, and adopt a more effective capital punishment system; b) ensure that a death sentence cannot be reduced to life in prison; and c) quickly execute prisoners on death row.
I don’t claim that the U.S. laws should be copied without making changes. A large, diverse American society needs a strict system of law, and order cannot be easily kept without the strict system. I support the humanistic interpretation of law in Korea. I cannot accept that some people beat up the police, but I like the Korean system where people can push and take on the police. I think the benevolent system unique to Korea, where each person’s situation is taken into consideration even if he broke a law, is the right system. Instead of a cold, heartless punishment, Korean judges interpret the law from a much more humanitarian and sympathetic viewpoint.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).