UNDER THE principle of *if the citizen questions, the government answers*, the *Cheong-wa-dae* (Blue House) launched an online public petition system to celebrate the 100th day of President Moon Jae-in’s inauguration. With the initiation of this new platform, the Moon administration has attempted to implement prompt and unfiltered communication between the nation’s citizens and Blue House officials.
The right to petition has always been written in Article 26 of the South Korean Constitution: (1) All citizens shall have the right to petition in writing to any governmental agency under the conditions as prescribed by Act. (2) The State shall be obligated to examine all such petitions. Thus, when the Blue House opened the public petition system, many considered it a victory for participatory democracy.
In fact, this marked the first time the right to petition was directly in the hands of the public. Previously, the public had to write letters to members of the National Assembly or send in petitions through the media. The process was indirect, either in the hands of political parties, who could publicize received letters, or reliant on the media, who could broadcast submitted petitions.
But with the advent of the online petition system, the “right” has finally returned to the people. What is publicized is decided by the signatures of citizens via this online venue, while the press finds its headlines on the website. The course of drafting and announcing petitions has now been made direct and simple and consequently, communication more efficient and effective.
Nevertheless, how many petitions—of the hundreds posted daily—are responded to? Worse still, how many petitions are even relevant enough to warrant feedback from the government? Government officials are only obligated to respond when a petition garners over 200,000 signatures within 30 days of its posting, a procedure that appears to be neat and simple at first glance. However, the platform, designed to give the South Korean public a direct line of communication to the government, is often denied this purpose by a constant torrent of posts, ranging from the malicious to the downright nonsensical. Homophobic and xenophobic posts with titles such as “Homosexuals are perverts, sex addicts, and mentally ill,” “Our taxpayer money is used to treat AIDS that come from homosexuals,” and “Arabs are raping our women” are strewn throughout the official Blue House website. After South Korea’s abysmal performance against Sweden in the World Cup, a number of posts appeared petitioning for the national soccer players to be punished. Admittedly, these posts get few signatures, yet they receive a veneer of legitimacy by their association with the President. As an open online venue, the petition system cannot be afforded immunity from internet trolls or public misinformation. All things considered, these shortcomings contribute to an inefficient, cluttered system.
In fact, petitions possess power far greater than simply that of voicing public opinion. In regards to polarizing incidents, public petitions tend to be biased to a dangerous extent; they can cause a bandwagon effect, stirring up public emotion and placing undue pressure on the government and all parties involved. At times, this has even been fatal. In the Yang Ye-won sexual harassment incident, a studio manager was accused, inconclusively, of sexually harassing YouTuber Yang Ye-won. Hundreds of petitions were subsequently posted—some called for his investigation; other, more extreme posts called for his death. Two months after the accusation, the manager committed suicide, likely due to the cumulative pressure of hundreds of thousands of *baseless* accusations.
This case is not a unique one. When South Korean speedskater Kim Bo-reum made a remark that seemed to blame fellow speedskater Noh Seon-yeong for the team’s loss at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, a petition calling for her to be banned from the sport received over 600,000 signatures. After the tournament, Kim and her mother had to be hospitalized after suffering from severe anxiety.
In reaction to these cases, Shin Jang-sik, secretary general of the minor progressive Justice Party, told the *Joongang Ilbo*, “What worries me about the petition board is that it could be misused as an outlet for fake news, or a venting of anger or disgust against a particular group of people, rather than a platform to make rightful demands to the government.” This vilification of individuals and spread of misinformation, circulated by the mob effect of the public platform, hinders discussion and objective investigation. Instead of allowing both sides to present their case in a dialectic fashion, petitions have the power to reduce the core tenets of democracy—free speech and argument—into passive acquiescence or disagreement.
A call for reform
Reforming the petition system, however, could alleviate the negative tendencies of the platform while bolstering its purpose as a medium of lawful appeal. Filters should be enforced to prevent overly irrelevant and malignant posts from dominating the boards, instead allowing members to post their petitions in a civil fashion. The petition system should also be regulated to allow only one signature per individual. Currently, people can sign a petition by logging into an account on one of three Social Networking Sites (SNS): Facebook, Twitter, or Naver. Since most people have multiple SNS accounts and spammers can abuse the system by creating numerous fake accounts, the government should inhibit multiple signatures by the same individual.
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In a nation rocked by the ousting of its last president and disillusioned by its institutional processes, the public petition platform exists as an attempt to restore the broken trust between citizen and official. This platform is akin to providing the whole of society with a microphone, giving all the equal opportunity to speak their voice regardless of age or background. Yet when civil petitions are drowned out by a cacophonous discord of voices, clamoring that every debased demand deserves to be heard, the Korean government must not pander to the masses. If reform does not take place, the public petition platform will fall under its systematic imperfections.