[OUTLOOK]Conservatives changing a nationWhat are the conservatives of Korea trying to "conserve?" For many in Korean society, "conservatism" is nothing more than the protection of vested interests by those lucky enough to hold such interests.
With Korean politics still lacking a clear distinction of ideologies and policies, while remaining at its hold-nothing-sacred level of power struggles, conservatism in Korea at many times seems to be the stubborn reliance on the status quo by those who happen to be on top at the time. True conservatism, however, is an ideology in its own right with its own principles and philosophy.
The progressives in a society constantly deny the past and try to overcome the present in their pursuit of an ideal future. For the progressives, all ties with the past need to be severed for a "progressive" society of the future to be born.
The conservatives feel otherwise: Today's achievements and tomorrow's possibilities are all born from yesterday's systems and customs. Con-servatives emphasize what is positive about the past and the present, and then they try to take it from there.
The distinction between progressives and conservatives starts from this fundamental question: What is there to inherit from our chaotic and difficult past?
Politically, South Korean society has always been under a strong government. From our first republic after independence to the present, we've been through dictatorships, military governments and imperialistic presidential systems.
Progressives and conservatives offer different answers to overcoming such a past. The progressives believe that we need to restrict our government. Conservatives, however, be-lieve that we still need a strong government albeit acknowledging the denial of democracy and abuse of human rights that our governments had committed in the past. They believe that a government that is strong in the right way is not incompatible with democracy and respect for human rights.
After the Korean War, South Korea achieved economic growth through a strategy that concentrated economic power. In the process, huge conglomerate groups called "jaebeols" were bred, the gap between the rich and the poor grew bigger and, finally, a loose sense of public duty led to a financial crisis.
Progressives wanted the jaebeols to be dismantled to sever all ties between business and politics and to stop the concentration of wealth. Conser-vatives called for the protection and strengthening of the international competitiveness of jaebeols and said that only big business could bring this about while checking the evils of letting these businesses grow too powerful. Conservatives be-lieved that there was a way to let big businesses increase their international competitiveness and contribute to the national economy while not monopolizing the capital.
The Korean Peninsula's peculiar situation had forced South Korea to remain in the Cold War until very recently. The progressives called for radical nationalism as the solution to end the Cold War in South Korea after it had long ended for the rest of the world. They claimed that the Cold War regime was being kept in South Korea by those whose vested interests depended on it, and that the only way to end this was to throw away all existing systems and start anew. Con-servatives, on the other hand, while acknowledging that the Cold War mentality was being politically exploited, thought that present and future North-South relations needed to be founded on the basis of the past, and that reconciliation and unification were to be an extension of the efforts achieved so far.
Culturally and socially, the progressives have always wanted to get rid of South Korea's paternalistic and authoritative culture, its traditions and its social customs of the past to move toward a "freed" society guaranteeing absolute equality.
Conservatives have de-nounced sexism and authoritarianism and want to build a society that is based on the proper authority, traditional ethics and moral code. Conservatives believe that our own traditional values could be upheld even while we adopted the new concept of democracy that protected everyone's rights.
Progressives have led the discussions about our society over the last few years. Yet history was made the way the conservatives had diagnosed and prescribed.
South Korea has been through tremendous changes, developments and progress. These changes, however, have been toward the direction of capitalism and democracy that the conservatives led in their pursuit of a stronger nation.
Progress was made not by a revolution of abrupt denials of the past, but by an evolution of gradual reforms. And it has been the conservatives who have led these reforms.
Korea's conservatives have reason to hold their heads high. It is regrettable that there are so few in society who define "conservatism" as such and try to think and behave accordingly.
The writer is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.
by Ham Jae-bong