[VIEWPOINT] Regionalism Trivializes Korean Politics

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[VIEWPOINT] Regionalism Trivializes Korean Politics

My younger son, who is in primary school, fretted about having to wait till 3 p.m. for lunch on Saturday because a student who had promised to treat all the classmates to pizza if he won the class election had won the post of vice representative. I asked my son whether the homeroom teacher had not stopped the student from making such a promise, or told the other students not to be taken in by such pledges, but he said no. Later, my son told me that they were not treated to pizza after all, because the student's mother sent pizza biscuits instead, saying pizza would be too expensive.

So the kids had learned not only to buy voters, but to also break campaign pledges after being elected. At first, I was angry at the teacher for letting such things happen, but then I recalled a recent poll that showed that one out of four respondents believes that it is not necessary to obey the law in this country.

When the same kind of mistake keeps being repeated, one is apt to lose all judgement of what is right and wrong. The key example is spreading regional antagonism. Two years remain before the next presidential election, but even scholars are joining politicians to expound all kinds of regionalism theories in a rampant display of moral hazard.

Following the ruling party chairman Kim Joong-kwon's call for a presidential candidate from Kyongsang provinces, Professor Lee Young-jak, First Lady Lee Hee-ho's nephew, claimed that a regional alliance among Cholla, Chungchong and Kangwon provinces was necessary. In a recent meeting, the United Liberal Democrats leader Kim Jong-pil and President Kim Dae-jung agreed to strengthen the so-called DJP alliance not only for next year's local elections but also for the 2002 presidential election. The opposition Grand National Party condemned the alliance, but I wish to ask whether the opposition leader is qualified to denounce the DJP alliance when he himself has frequently raced to Kyongsang region to call for regional solidarity.

There are even rumors of the two Kims dragging in former President Kim Young-sam to forge a three-Kims alliance. The rumors might not be entirely groundless, judging from the prosecution's skirting the main suspect in its investigations into the intelligence agency's diversion of funds to the former ruling camp. Regional animosity also runs high among the young Netizens. Internet chat rooms abound with backbiting accusations against anyone holding different views hailing from one or another region.

Some readers might question whether I am qualified to make such criticisms, since I claimed in the past that it was rational for voters to cast their ballot for candidates from their own region. I also said in a 1995 thesis that transfer of power based on the strength of regional alliances can help to overcome regional antagonism, and maintained that the DJP alliance was not only possible but also desirable, when many people thought otherwise.

I made such assertions because I do not believe voting along regional lines is unconditionally immoral. If the distribution of power is determined by regionalism, some regions will always end up with a smaller slice of the pie. In such circumstances, the residents of the alienated regions can overcome regional discrimination by voting for candidates from their home region. Even in the United States, African-Americans have always raised their status by voting for black candidates.

The DJP alliance has its own merits. Transfer of power based on regional alliance can be a warning not to recognize the hegemony of a specific region. The election of a president from the Cholla region can also help to salve the residents' feelings of being the perpetual underdog. But there is no longer any justification to insist on regional alliances today. If the pandering to regionalism spreads from national politics to local elections, the autonomy of regional politics will be severely compromised and central political parties will hold the heads of regional autonomous organizations in leash.

It is lucky that the student who became the class vice representative did not keep his election pledge. The other students would not have learned that they must not be blinded by unrealistic campaign pledges in casting their votes. The DJP alliance is failing to introduce proper reforms because it is not a policy alliance, but a regional alliance between two political parties with disparate ideals and policies. Voters also have to draw a lesson from the failed reforms to see why they should not base their votes on regional sentiments.

The National Assembly is dysfunctional because the leading politician from a specific region enjoys complete control over party nominations and turns the representatives into mere puppets. Are we going to stand by and allow politicians to function as kingmakers based on no credit but a regional foundation? Voters are the only ones who can shatter their dreams.

We have to achieve a second electoral revolution by combating regional conflicts in the next election. We have to show our children what is right and wrong.

by Cho Ki-suk

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