[OUTLOOK]Happy holidays, Mr. PoliticianThe holiday season is around the corner, but the holiday spirit hasn’t arrived yet. In streets of Seoul, it is hard to hear Christmas carols. End-of-the-year parties are no longer joyful and pleasant. People try to share optimism with wishful thinking that next year will be better. But we all lack confidence.
A year ago, we had a lot to talk about. The presidential election was the biggest concern, and we all hoped that no matter who was elected, the new president would make a difference for the country. The year 2002 was also memorable, thanks to the hosting of the World Cup soccer tournament. For many Koreans, June was the most exciting month in years. But now it feels like we have lost a lot in the past year.
Everyone is tired and irritated because there is no sign suggesting that this country is operating normally. The presidential election took place a year ago, but the clock of politics seems to remain stuck there. Compare today’s newspaper with one of a year earlier during the election campaign, and you will find no substantial difference.
The all-consuming war of attrition has continued for a year, and the confrontation between President Roh Moo-hyun and retired opposition leader and former presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang has been restarted. The president says he could step down from the chief executive’s position, and the politician who could have been president volunteered to go to prison. The unyielding rivalry has not changed a bit.
Why is Korean politics always so savage and bellicose? The tradition is rooted in the “politics of original sin.” As investigations have revealed, no politician is in fact free from dark dealings in political funds. From the moment a politician violates the scope of campaign fund designated by the law or illegally receives or collects political donations, he becomes a violator of the election campaign funds law.
Because politicians know that they have all violated the law in one way or another, the losers know that their vulnerable points are exposed to the winners. The elections are the battles you have to win. In order to cover up the crimes, politicians have to make sure they take power. Like General Gyebaek preparing for a decisive battle to protect the falling kingdom of Baekjae, the politicians are desperate. If you lose in the presidential election, you have to fight to the end to win the Assembly election. If you don’t have the power to protect yourself, you never know how the winner will hurt you.
In fighting an election campaign, the more ammunition you have, the better prepared you are. Collect money by barrel, by box, or by truck. An illegal act will bring a bigger illegal act. The consequences of defeat will grow as the politicians use more unlawful measures to win. In the savage land of politics, the results of the desperate contest can make or break the careers of politicians.
When investigations uncover the illegal acts of politicians and their use of campaign financing, they hardly ever regret or repent, but claim to be persecuted. Their justification is that they are not the only politicians to have received illegal donations, regardless of the size of their slush funds.
Former presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang seems to believe that the current probe into his campaign financing is political retaliation. Because both parties committed the same crime, he might think that the difference between him and Mr. Roh is not who is innocent and who is guilty, but the fact that Mr. Roh defeated him. This is the reason why the political climate is destined to deteriorate.
In the eyes of the voters, the entire commotion is sickening. The way to end the vicious cycle of slush fund scandals is apparent, but politicians are not likely to change their ways in the upcoming Assembly elections or thereafter. Many candidates may have already spent more than the legal ceiling and others may have received illegal donations. As the election comes nearer, the number of “criminals” will grow along with the risks to the losers.
Many citizens have lost confidence in politicians already. But we at least want to give our friends hopeful greetings by saying at year-end parties that next year will be better.
Don’t let the warlike atmosphere of politics deprive us Koreans of our holiday spirit.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Soongsil University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kang Won-taek