After Moon Jae-in was sworn in May last year as South Korea’s new president, he focused on building an image as a leader who is open and willing to communicate with the public. After all, his predecessor, impeached President Park Geun-hye, was consistently criticized for never venturing out of the presidential Blue House and showing little interest in listening to public criticism.
Moon came out of the Blue House and talked to people. He drank coffee with staff members and went hiking to meet citizens. But his efforts to appear as an approachable leader were not limited to just publicity stunts.
The government created an official online channel on the website of the Blue House where citizens could file petitions. The idea was that if a petition got the backing of more than 200,000 petitioners within 30 days, a relevant and high-level government official would answer the petition while expressing the government’s view and explaining what might be done.
The reaction has been remarkable. There were a total of 160,000 petitions filed in the eight months from August 2017 to mid-May 2018, which marked the first anniversary of Moon’s inauguration. Another 160,000 petitions were filed between April and the end of October. This means an average of 744 petitions have been filed per day to date.
There have been a total of 53 petitions attracting more than 200,000 petitioners, and the government has responded to each of them as it promised.
Public interest in this new channel for communicating with the government has raised the profile of similar channels operated by a number of other governmental organizations.
Over the same period, for instance, the number of applications received by the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, which had been a representative source for public petitions before the presidential office opened its own channel, has also increased. A total of 350,000 civil petitions were filed with the commission from January to August 2017 (when the Blue House’s petition platform launched). That number increased to 440,000 from January to September this year.
Jeon Sang-jin, a professor at Seoul-based Sogang University, believes that citizens are motivated to utilize these channels as they gain experience of the influence that the collective voice can bring to bear. Public protests contributed greatly to the impeachment of former President Park in late 2016.
Jeon added that citizens also seem to be satisfied by the perceived confirmation that the top governmental agencies and officials are listening to their voices, which had not previously been jointly raised or presented before.
However, some point out that the role of the online petition channel is limited to listening to the public rather than seeking actual solutions.
A petition to prevent juvenile delinquency by raising the minimum age for a criminal penalty from the current 14 years old was one example. It was the first petition that received the backing of more than 200,000 petitioners and it was answered by Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Cho Kuk.
In his response, Cho said the government will focus on prevention and re-education measures with regard to juvenile delinquencies. At that time, many petitioners expressed vocal dissatisfaction with Cho’s answer.
The Blue House so far has responded to a total of 53 petitions but the responses were mostly limited to acknowledging the issues and promising that the government would review how they should deal with them.
There is also the criticism that the petition channel has turned into a stage for witch-hunts.
Since the channel allows online users to submit petitions anonymously, some are taking advantage by using the channel to attack specific figures while, at times, there are some petitions that have their basis in rumors or unverified information.
Another issue is that the channel has created a sentiment among citizens that everything can be solved by the Blue House through the submission of a petition on the portal, provided it goes on to gain a high enough number of backers.
This has encouraged citizens to flock to the Blue House petition channel for every single issue they face as if it is a “cure-all” for everything, although there are more appropriate organizations or channels that can deal with many of the issues being raised.
The government has operated this channel for over a year now, and there are no doubts that it has been playing the role of a core channel connecting South Korean citizens with the government.
It is fair to say, however, that enough time has passed to gauge pros and cons of it. It is time for the government to seek ways of improving the channel, taking it to the next level whereby it can offer a more convincing and effective means of access.