[FOUNTAIN]The Korean vortex of power

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[FOUNTAIN]The Korean vortex of power

Sometimes others’ eyes can see something one cannot see about oneself. It is especially true in politics. Amid political turmoil, visibility can be narrowed and blurred. Foreigners who stand apart from the situation can have sharper eyes on Korean politics than Koreans themselves.
That is what made an American named Gregory Henderson (1922-1988) a credible observer. The Harvard graduate first came to Korea when he was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul in July 1948, right before the government of the Republic of Korea was established. His two stints in Seoul, from 1948 to 1950 and then from 1958 to 1963, gave him an insight into Korea’s modern political history. He had Korean friends and even went by a Korean name, Han Dae-sun.
After he retired, he published “Korea: The Politics of the Vortex” in 1968, based on his experience and observation.
To his eyes, Korean politics was an unstable vortex. All members of society jumped in to compete for political power and created a giant vortex. He claimed that the political strife and confrontations in Korea were not related to policy or to ideological or religious differences. Korea is a homogenous society where the competition is not diversified but is concentrated on political power. He claimed that Korean politics sensitively responds to the balance of power.
He pointed out that decentralization of power was difficult because of the nature of the vortex, where the power is sucked up from the bottom to the top, from the edges to the center. Education was degraded as a pathway to power, so despite the high education level the society remains power-oriented.
Mr. Henderson was quite skeptical about Korean society. But his book is still frequently referred to in the classrooms of universities around the country after 35 years. His claims are still effective not only because his observations were acute and poignant but also because the political culture has remained unchanged after all those years.
The country is falling into yet another vortex as President Roh Moo-hyun has sought a national referendum on his leadership. This time, the vortex is not spontaneous but intentionally created by the chief executive. The focus of the vortex could be power and authority, not policy. The international and domestic situations are chaotic enough. Let’s hope that the vote of confidence does not turn into a gale with destructive power.


by Nahm Yoon-ho

The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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