Policy of Appeasement Will FailPopulism describes the set of policies that became the reigning orthodoxy in South American politics in the 1970s. This concept refers to the pitches South American governments made to unite the people of various classes with conflicting interests under the banner of nationalism to restore their debt-ridden economies. As part of the political line aimed at mitigating their economic reliance on foreign countries, government leaders tried to assimilate the clashing and divergent interests of the various strata of society from landowners and peasants, to industrialists, urban merchants, white-collar workers and international traders, etc.
The populist spin had some success in achieving the political goal of rousing the people from all walks of life to come together for shared goals, but its economic goal of achieving an independent development of the national economy ended in abysmal failure. In the first place, no national policy can ever satisfy the breadth of varying interests that exist simultaneously in the market. In retrospect, populism in South America is now viewed as having been merely sugar-coated politics that opportunistically sought public support.
The groups that make up a society often clash over differing interests and ideologies.
The voices that make up the chorus of demands on the government sing on different keys, each championing their own cause or goal, such as economic growth, fair distribution of wealth or national reconciliation. Some groups call for national policies placing the priority on welfare for the poor and the disenfranchised, while others advocate environmental protection or national development.
The political process of a democracy begins by addressing the disparate demands of various groups. The role of politics in a democracy is to listen to the conflicting voices, review them, and ultimately generate a public consensus on what can or cannot be done. There is no politics in the world that can satisfy the demands of all the people all the time.
But this is just what the politicians in South Korea are trying to do today. The government irresponsibly promised the doctors to enforce what reforms they insist are necessary, but turned around and made the same promises to pharmacists whose interests clash with those of the doctors. In the end, it was the public that suffered from the fallout of a protracted medical impasse after doctors staged one strike after another.
The government decided to overlook the risky business expansions of Hyundai Group subsidiaries in the process of pursuing economic projects with North Korea. The conglomerate is now in hot water for its financial woes that were aggravated in the process of business expansion, and the key target of the government''s efforts to whip conglomerates into shape.
On the information and communications front, the government announced a policy of fostering venture companies. They were then left out in the cold when the government decided to focus solely on the interests of conglomerates in pursuing a major next-generation mobile communications technology project dubbed IMT-2000.
The government also promised to cut working hours to 40 per week when it negotiated with the committee representing the nation''s labor and management groups, but failed to take steps necessary to implement the agreement.
The majority of the ruling party members were dissidents during past military dictatorships. When they were the opposition, all of them made stringent demands for the introduction of a special prosecutor system to investigate cases of suspected political corruption. These same individuals, now at the helm of the nation at a time when a series of bribery, corruption and influence-peddling scandals are marring the administration, are turning a deaf ear to the public''s call for the same system to investigate political corruption.
Each time an election approaches, the ruling party cozies up to the United Liberal Demo-crats, characterizing it as an integral part of the coalition government to curry its favor. After the end of each election, the coalition partner is cast aside and becomes the government''s target of reforms.
The Financial Supervisory Service, charged with liquidating insolvent businesses and financial institutions, recently came under the taint of bribery and corruption. Yet the government confidently pronounces that the outlook for the South Korean economy is rosy, and claims the restructuring process is set in motion without a hitch.
In many ways, the politics in Korea today is too similar with the populism of South America in the 1970s. The two are alike in their political approaches, basing their decisions solely on winning public favor and in justifying their decisions even after they cause social conflict.
To make matters worse, the critical voices of intellectuals, students and civic groups, that had played such an integral role in opposing and criticizing past military regimes for their policy failures, are now largely muted, relegated to the sidelines as power politics and the proponents of global commerce call the shots.
Who are we going to blame when the term of the Kim Dae-jung administration ends and its populist policy decisions come back to haunt us?