[VIEWPOINT]Time to Work for a National Consensus

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[VIEWPOINT]Time to Work for a National Consensus

At the beginning there was the Asian financial crisis. Then there was the realization on the part of the entire nation that there had to be a fundamental reform to put the country back on track. And so few objected to the notion that nurturing democracy and market economy was the national objective.

Of late, however, there is an increasing number of people who are doubtful of the future of democracy and market economy in South Korea. This is because the economy is in deep trouble and society is breaking down at the seams as the lame duck status of President Kim Dae-jung takes hold. There are a lot of people who are concerned that the current government is in danger of following in the footsteps of the Kim Young-sam administration and being haunted by an economic crisis and populist authoritarianism.

The "anti-dictatorship competition" between Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung launched a new era of democratic rule in South Korea. Everyone reveled in sharing in the hard-earned achievement. In contrast, the "competition to rule the nation" between the two, rather than opening a new era, ended up being influenced by forces created during the previous era, and eventually doomed to fail.

As a matter of fact, the choice between Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung as to who would be the better leader was an excruciatingly difficult one for the Korean people during South Korea's authoritarian rule. But rather than choosing one or the other, the Korean people wisely chose both. By allowing Kim Dae-jung to start where Kim Young-sam left off, they hoped Kim Dae-jung would cure the "Korean disease" (various problems of bureaucracy) that Kim Young-sam failed to eradicate. But we are now concerned whether the direction in which Kim Dae-jung is headed is where Kim Young-sam ended his term. Kim Dae-jung, once touted as the messiah of democracy, just like his predecessor, is in danger of turning into a failed leader. Of course, Kim Dae-jung has been in a different situation than Kim Young-sam. As a president whose party holds less than a majority of seats in parliament, his administration encountered too many hurdles on the way to reform. If Kim Young-sam directly confronted those hurdles, Kim Dae-jung had to build tunnels or drive around mountains to get to where he wanted to go.

However, it doesn't appear likely the Korean people will grant a reprieve to the current administration in consideration of the difficulties it has faced. As various polls indicate, even though they obtained power through a popular election, Kim Dae-jung's associates stood above the people as if they were "conquerors" and failed to obtain a national consensus. Not only did they refuse to pursue dialogue with the "subjugated," the current government denied the legitimacy of the advice and criticism from its opponents.

The reason why Franklin Roosevelt is praised as one of the best presidents in American history is not because of his ability to deal generously with the forces critical of his New Deal. He was infamous for being brutal with his critics. But he was not narrow-minded in respecting the legitimacy of the criticism aimed at his programs and he constantly worked toward garnering a consensus from the forces critical of him.

Unlike FDR, Kim Dae-jung spent little time garnering a consensus from his opponents. He only trusted the national consensus formulated in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis and neglected to obtain the approval necessary for the structural reform of the country.

President Kim Dae-jung who has entered the lame duck stage of his tenure faces two choices: one is to wield the sword of populist authoritarianism through law enforcement agencies, just like Kim Young-sam did. Or he could work extra hard to garner a political consensus. Both choices are dangerous politically for the president. However, he should realize that only the latter can open the door to a bright future for the nation.


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The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong

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