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Noblesse oblige: Failure among Korea’s elites

March 10, 2017 was more than just a regular Friday for the Princetonians who have been following South Korea’s presidential corruption scandal. It was the day when the South Korean Constitutional Court upheld the National Assembly’s decision to remove ex-President Park from the office of the presidency. Park was removed on charges of disrespecting the duties of the presidency. Park’s national policies were established by Choi Soon-sil, a mere civilian without any authority, who acted as if she were the true president of South Korea. This was a day when democratic principles prevailed over the powerful, and the government recognized the will of the South Korean people’s collective. The Court’s decision shows that no one is above the law and that South Korean democracy will not perish.

I was ecstatic when I heard of the Court’s decision; I had been following the scandal for months. I had pored over any credible news I could find online, and fully supported the massive protests against Park. I rejoiced in the South Korean people’s reclamation of their basic freedom to select leaders and in the justice dealt out to those affiliated with the scandal. More importantly, I celebrated the heroism of the few journalists on the Korean news channel JTBC who were brave enough to endure the wrath of the government while investigating such a politically explosive scandal. By choosing to use their privileged education for public benefit, these reporters show that educated elites, not unlike students at Princeton, should work not for the sake of their own egos, but for the fulfillment of their social responsibility.

Although the Choi scandal is now a widely accepted reality, five months ago it was a secret known only by a few individuals. These individuals were comprised of the best and the brightest that the Korean educational system had to offer. They were the people in control of the government and of the nation’s businesses. They were the aristocrats of South Korean society, who prided themselves on being the uncontested leaders of South Korea. These “leaders” knew of the unhealthy relationship between Park and Choi, but stood by and did nothing as Park and Choi flagrantly violated the foundations of Korean democracy. Some even participated in the corruption: Lee Jae Yong, the vice chairman of Samsung, South Korea’s largest corporation, paid Park 43.3 billion won, or roughly $38 million, for illegal governmental protection of Samsung interests.

The academic and social elites’ inability to uphold the idea of noblesse oblige is not surprising. It often seems that people are ruled predominantly by their self-interests, whether they are educated at the finest universities or born into the most prestigious families. But the journalists who uncovered the Choi scandal challenge this pessimistic outlook. The reporters worked tirelessly, sacrificing hours to piece together a single shredded document to retrace the corruption and crimes committed at the highest level of the South Korean government. They put their livelihoods on the line, as their investigative work could have landed them on a career-ending government blacklist. Their courage in braving such a risk to find the truth for the Korean people provides a shining example of what elites could be. These reporters were at the forefront of their field, honed by years of high education, with their careers on the line, but they did not back down.

Princeton has the capacity to inspire this kind of social responsibility in its elite students. The University has produced leaders, scientists, and intellectuals in every field. Our alumni are at the forefront of the political and academic arenas. Our education alone, however, does not make us true elites, not the kind that responsibly lead society. We must also understand our responsibilities to humanity, making sure that we are not blinded by our elevated status. The Choi scandal shows us that we cannot stand by and tolerate corruption when we, as elites, have the capacity to put an end to it. We cannot hide from the troubles of the world behind our diplomas and the skills we have learned at this institution. We must use what we learn here at the University to improve the lives of others.

The Korean politicians and business people who called themselves the elites thought their comfort was more important than the greater good of the South Korean people. They led the Korean people in directions that did not reflect the people’s wishes. They failed in their responsibility, as elites, to support the people and to make sure that their wishes were reflected in the general direction of society and politics. But we at the University can do better. Like the JTBC reporters who risked their careers to make sure that the public had all the facts, we have a responsibility to be public servants.

Daehee Lee is a freshman from Palisades Park, N.J. He can be reached at