[VIEWPOINT]Wavering political convictionsAsked for his impression of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, a foreign scholar specializing in Korean affairs said the new government had an “excess of conviction.” A politician needs convictions, he added, but Mr. Roh’s convictions put too much emphasis on negating the past and the present and too little on affirming the future.
The assertion that the Roh Moo-hyun administration began with a bit too much conviction is hard to deny. This is probably because the 30-something generation that forms the core of Mr. Roh’s government is, much more than any other demographic group, bursting with conviction. Mr. Roh himself accentuated the image of excessive conviction through his words and deeds, such as when he said he would “destroy” the families of those who try to buy their way up the bureaucratic ladder.
In a way, the Korean people feel refreshed by a politician with conviction. They are fed up with politicians who cater to their own interests rather than following their ideological and policy convictions. Koreans also think it is impossible to introduce reforms and overcome the power of the establishment without a politician with excessive conviction.
The problem political convictions confront in Korea, though, is that they magnify the image of “no,” negating the present, over the image of “yes,” affirming the future. In its dealings with the United States, the Roh administration originally wanted to show a “Korea that could say no” but eventually came around to saying, “Well, yes, if you insist.” It also wanted to say “no” to the legislation to name a special prosecutor to investigate illegal money transfers to North Korea and to the KBS union over the naming of the broadcasting company’s president, but it said, “Well, if you insist” after a lot of false starts. Moving swiftly from “no” to “Well, all right” may be a highly appropriate reaction to some turns of events, but the impression given by first saying “no” without fully contemplating the consequences, and then caving in when problems occur, is not a good example of political conviction.
A more fundamental problem is that political convictions can quickly crumble if their beginnings are filled with problems. In fact, this mode of politics can create problems even when it succeeds. Once it succeeds, the president will find it hard to evade the temptation of taking the reins entirely into his own hands and leaving the rest of the political establishment to watch as he governs according to his own convictions. In such a situation, the president only needs applauding citizens and no longer needs political parties or the National Assembly. All checks and balances of power would lose their influence and the phantom of authoritarianism would emerge. On the other hand, if a president’s political convictions fail him, he is ruined and chaos emerges.
The beginning of Mr. Roh’s reforms based on political convictions suggests the beginning of a chaotic future. It is up to the Korean people to decide whether the chaos is a price that we have to pay for a new political order or a serious problem that threatens interests vital to the nation.
In order for there to be a national consensus on what constitutes the national interest, the vicious cycle of proclaiming and then abandoning convictions should come to an end. We cannot deal with the dynamic current events here and abroad with a mentality that portrays the United States as the aggressor and Korea the victim or the news media as the aggressor and the government the victim. The clash with the United States appears to have resulted in concessions from Korea and the KBS presidency fight ended with concessions from the government, and unless there is a fundamental change to the view that dubs one side an aggressor and the other a victim there will continue to be problems.
More than anything else, if the reform drive is buttressed by the politics of conviction, the administration has to review not only whether it is right or wrong but also whether it is willing to take the responsibility for the results. This is the only way to end the “No...well, maybe” political cycle.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.
by Chang Dal-joong