[OUTLOOK]Ideology Should Define Political Debate

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[OUTLOOK]Ideology Should Define Political Debate

The recent debate over Korea's political parties' ideological "colors" have a special meaning in the history of politics in Korea. The discourse is the first time since 1945, when Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule, that these discussions over ideology have gone beyond tit-for-tat and developed into an open debate.

Kim Mahn-je, chief policymaker of the opposition Grand National Party, ignited the debate. He did not let a day go by without attacking the ruling Millennium Democratic Party for its "socialist" policies. He called the Korea Teacher's Educational Workers' Union the most socialistic group in Korea. His crusade went on despite a warning from Lee Hoi-chang, the opposition party leader.

Mr. Kim's comments coincided with recent attempts by the ruling party to regain support from its traditional support base among the middle and lower income classes after observing the dismal results in April's by-elections and the intra-party purification drive led by a group of younger lawmakers of the party. Kim Mahn-je's remarks were not sophisticated, and were politically offensive. But unlike past "ideology wars" under the military regimes, rather McCarthyist affairs in which individuals were accused of being leftist, Mr. Kim criticized the recent policies of the government and ruling party on education, press reform and social welfare.

Now is time for each party to draw party lines and policies to secure its support base among the electorate. That was why the public paid attention to recent political debates, thinking they might lead the parties to differentiate themselves along political lines. It could have been an opportunity for each political party to restyle itself "conservative" or "liberal," rather than sticking to the traditional regional lines of support.

But it seems that it is still too early to see such an achievement. The current ruling establishment, labeled "red" by military regimes during its long years in the political wilderness, has not shown any inclination to pursue the issue. Of course, political parties in Korea face many difficulties clearly defining their party lines. Many people in Korea have come to identify conservatism with the unhealthy, reactionary conservatism of the military dictators. And as the peninsula has been split into two distinct ideological halves for more than a half century, even liberal figures have hesitated at the socialist label for fear of being identified with North Korea.

In a public opinion poll conducted by a planning committee of the opposition party, 71.4 percent of respondents said Lee Hoi-chang and the opposition party needed to become more liberal. About 11 percent said the opposition party was "adequately liberal," and 10 percent said the party needed to become more conservative. However, of particular note was that a higher percentage of those who claimed to be supporters of the opposition party - 75.5 percent - called for greater liberalization of the opposition party, this was way beyond the average.

The reverse theory can be applied to the ruling party. For it to reassume the reins of government, it needs to appeal to the conservative group in Korea as well as those in the middle- and low-income brackets. Park Sang-cheon, senior member of the ruling party, echoed this view Monday when he told reporters that the ruling party required two wings, of "reformative conservatism" and "rational liberalism."

In other words, none of the parties will come to power if backed only by a certain group. This was well demonstrated in the last presidential election. The then opposition party leader Kim Dae-jung joined hands with Kim Jong-pil, leader of the United Liberal Democrats to embrace the conservative bracket, and as a result, successfully took the helm of the country. If people can champion a certain party not because the party represent interests of certain region but because of its ideology and policies, Korea's political culture will take another step forward.


The writer is political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Du-woo

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