[OUTLOOK]Korean politics again in crisis

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[OUTLOOK]Korean politics again in crisis

Korean politics is facing its worst crisis since the wave of democracy that swept over the country in 1987. The biggest reason for this crisis is that there are no political leaders or forces that have gained the active support of the Korean people.
Even during the days of Syngman Rhee or through the long reigns of military dictators, people had political leaders and forces that they supported in their hearts. In those days, there were political leaders who fought against dictatorship at the risk of their lives. These days it is hard, if not impossible, to find a political leader who has won the wholehearted trust and support of the people.
The people have lost their hope in political groups, be it Our Open Party, the Millennium Democrats, the Grand National Party or the United Liberal Democrats. The people have lost their respect for the president and any inclination to support the legislators. If anyone supports a certain party or the president or a certain legislator, it is usually for the negative reason of trying to deter another party or politician from gaining power. President Roh Moo-hyun’s remark that to support the Millennium Democratic Party was to lend support to the Grand National Party is a clear reflection of this negative political view of the people.
Considering the political issues that we face at the moment, it seems unlikely that this lack of support will improve this year. Legislative elections are scheduled in April and yet the legislators are still squabbling over the revision of election laws in defiance of a Constitutional Court ruling to draw up electoral districts by last December. The lawmakers are ignoring the laws that they themselves made in their allied determination to protect their own interests.
The ugly haggling will repeat itself soon, and the rage of the people against the National Assembly will intensify. That rage has already been kindled by the National Assembly’s rejection of a request for its consent to the detention of seven lawmakers a few days ago.
The mudslinging between the president and the opposition parties is leading to a life-or-death confrontation. It is inevitable that the prosecution’s investigation into illegal presidential campaign funds will expand, and talk about Lee Hoi-chang, the losing presidential candidate, going to jail and Roh Moo-hyun being impeached is already circulating.
The power struggle among the political parties is extreme and the people’s support for politicians and the president is crashing. Politicians have done nothing but divide national opinion by injecting political ideology into foreign policy issues such as sending additional troops to Iraq, North Korea’s nuclear program and the Korea-U.S. alliance. They have also failed to present any solution to the issues of labor-management relations and farmers. Because politicians have failed to solve these issues of international and domestic importance within the established system, there were street rallies almost every day last year, and such rallies seem likely to continue this year.
The results of the elections in April will influence the future of the four parties and President Roh, but it is likely that people will be driven to vote for a party or candidate with distrust in their hearts instead of actively supporting or believing in their ballot choice. With the disgust for politicians high among the public, the turnout for the elections is expected to be very low.
Today’s political situation is similar to that under the short-lived “Second Republic” that was establishd after the April 19 student uprising in 1960, in that politicians have isolated the public from politics. The difference is that the Korean economy is not in the impoverished state it was then and there are no challenging forces coming from outside politics today.
Our people long for the appearance of a political leader or force that they can support with all their hearts and that can give them hope for the future. Korean politics could meet a catastrophe again if current political leaders and forces do not show a new determination to rise to the people’s expectations in this new year. The year 2004 is a year that will decide which way Korean politics will go. Will elite Korean politicians, with their higher-than-average education, gain the wisdom to change themselves before they meet catastrophe?

* The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Jung-bock
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