firmly in place has been confirmed through an abundance of historical evidence.
State subsidy for civil groups should be abolished
The state subsidy provided to civil groups1) has become one of the most controversial issues at the latest round of parliamentary audit. An opposition lawmaker grilled the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) for their "brutal inspection" on cultural and civil groups. He raised a suspicion that the state auditors had been aiming at anti-government organizations. The BAI chairman replied that his agency had no interest in ideology but it would only inspect whether and how the civil groups have misappropriated the state subsidies.
Over the past three years, the BAI has probed a total of 543 civil groups in civil rights, society, culture and environment areas who received more than 80 million won in state subsidy per year. So far, about 30 to 40 high-ranking officials at those groups were found to have embezzled the state fund. In an extreme case, a few leaders shared more than 100 million won in state fund as their bonuses or diverted the money to their private use. As such, some people have called for thorough inspection and demanded the redemption of the misused or mistakenly provided state subsidies under the Article 12 of the law on supporting non-profit civilian groups.
Another lawmaker revealed evidence that some municipal governments had allocated much of the central government budget to boost local communities for green growth to a limited number of pro-government civil groups. Thanks to the municipal government's biased yardsticks, major bodies with nationwide networks and supportive of the government received sizable state subsidies easily. Most local governments disqualified those with records of staging a strike or being punished for protests from the start. In order to exclude those against the government and support only pro-government bodies, they intentionally disallowed those who launched or actively joined a demonstration or whose members were penalized for the violation of the law over assembly and protest to apply for the state subsidies.
Ideologically-biased civil groups
Opposition party lawmakers insisted that since the regime change, the current government has taken a policy to oppress civil groups critical of the government through audits and financial disincentives. Regardless of the truth over the government discrimination, lawmakers from the opposition parties have acknowledged the political bias of civil groups and even the BAI chairman has apparently agreed that there existed both left-leaned civil groups and right-wing bodies.
It's true that the civil groups in our society have strong ideological preferences. Some civil organizations with excessive ideological bias are claimed to have formed close ties with the political power. The argument goes that they have denied the ideology of liberal democracy, promoted the pro-North Korea and pro-unification stances, created anti-market and anti-business sentiment, supported anti-U.S. and closed self-sufficient economy, spurred up violence, and frequently relied on distortion and propaganda. They have also forced the government to change its course through candle-lit vigils or public protests and even attempted anti-constitutional acts to oppose and neutralize the government in an organized way.
The strong ideological and political platforms held by South Korean civil groups appear to have derived from the historical background of their birth. They came to the limelight after South Korea became a democratic country. Those leading the democracy movements transformed into a civil group after succeeding in ending the decades-long dictatorship and achieving the direct election of the president. A liberal intellectual said in the early 1990s as follows:
"In our situation, civil movements are highly pertinent and necessary…civil rights movements and class struggles may not stand against each other but rather compensate each other…The key focus should be placed on who will more effectively remove the pains of the Korean people under the circumstances where a proletariat revolution appears to be hard to achieve…"
He understands the civil rights movement from the communist point of view. Since the civil movements shared the revolutionary goal of the class struggle movements, many civil groups were bound to be inherently ideological. This perspective shows a far distance from the general characteristics of civil rights movements or civil groups.
Civil groups have seen its influence growing to such an extent that they are now called as the fifth power, following legislature, justice, administration and media. Although the exact numbers are not available, they are very large. A data published in 2006 showed that there were about 23,000 civil groups in Korea. Civil groups are "non-government, non-political, and non-profit organization that pursues public interest with the citizen's voluntary and proactive participation." Under the definition, civil groups should have voluntary citizens as their members and act in pursuit of the public interest. They must also be a non-government, non-political, and non-profit organization.
But many Korean civil groups are not based on voluntary citizens. They do not seek for public interest and are far from non-political. What's more absurd is they deny the constitution and country that they're supposed to serve. This is a huge problem for our society. A mixture of civil groups have long existed together, including those denying the system, those serving their own interest, those created with special purpose, and those becoming a cat's paw in pursuit of power.
Civil groups serving certain interests at the expense of public representation
In general, a civil group is presumed to have a public interest that might be infringed when public matters such as politics, economy, or society are left to the state or market. It indicates civil groups will try to reveal or resolve problems created by the state and market. They are based on the assumption that the state and market fall short of realizing the public interest, which has spread the perception that civil groups represent the interest of majority citizens.
Most people believe that civil groups represent their interest but the reality may not be the case. That's why criticism has arisen over their powerful influence in policy making and society despite the fact that they do not represent the universal interest of the entire population but the narrower interest of specific groups. Many people believe it's unfair for the civil groups to play a sort of public role in the society although they have never delegated the groups a right to represent their position or interest.
It's wrong for the civil groups to participate in politics and social affairs as an agent of the citizens in the absence of public consensus that they fairly represent the people's interest. Civil groups are not officially a representative body. The level of citizens' participation does not determine their representativeness. Even if many people take part in a civil group, it does not represent the interest of the entire population. Taking into a consideration that highly ideological civil groups are dominating our society, their case for representing the citizens is pretty weak.
Some argue that leaders of civil groups should switch their course and try to boost the representativeness by turning them into a body transcending their ideological causes and serving the public interest such as environment, human rights, welfare, and community. But the idea still misses the point. Civil groups cannot become a representative body since their leaders are not elected by voters. From this perspective, civil groups are different from government bodies and literally, they are a non-government organization.
State subsidy for civil groups has no just cause
Civil groups are inherently unable to obtain the representativeness of the citizens. Since they are based on volunteers, they are independent of the government and not subject to state regulation and subsidy. Their responsibility is self-created, not granted by the citizens. And the obligations could be achieved only through self-regulation and competition, not by external forces.
Despite the fact, many civil groups have participated in the government's policy making process and received state subsidy. This is apparently wrong. The state aid cannot be justified even if they are granted for individual projects, not as a working capital for the civil groups, through the "law to support non-profit private organization." The problem is not that they have misused the subsidy or that the government has selectively paid the subsidy to friendly organizations.
The real problem is the fact that the government is providing a subsidy and civil groups are receiving it. Even if the organizations are formed voluntarily and political neutral and serve the public interest, state aid cannot be justified. Civil groups are neither a government body nor an organization subject to state control or protection. Furthermore, there exists no broad consensus over the state financial support of the civil groups' existence and operations. Since citizens have the freedom of idea, expression and assembly in a liberal democratic society, activities of civil groups should be allowed. But there is neither reason nor need for the government to pay the subsidy with taxpayers' money to ensure their activities.
By Shin Jung-sup / Professor of ethics education at Kangwon University
1) Although I use the word of "civil rights group" in accordance with customs, I would like to propose the use of NGO instead.