[OUTLOOK]The generations aren’t at warThere is talk of a “generational changeover,” or a “mainstream changeover,” concerning the outcome of the 17th National Assembly election. Those in their 60s, who compromised 32.6 percent of the 16th National Assembly, make up only 16.4 percent of the 17th. Meanwhile, the percentage of legislators in their 30s and 40s has risen from 28.6 percent to 43.1 percent. The main actors of the National Assembly are now those in their 30s and 40s, not those in their 50s and 60s.
Some believe this phenomenon started with the presidential election in 2002, and that it has merely been reaffirmed in the legislative election. In other words, President Roh Moo-hyun’s election has changed the ideological flow of Korean society from conservative to progressive, and with Our Open Party gaining a majority in the Assembly, the transformation of the mainstream has become complete.
This means that the generation that experienced war has moved aside, making way for the postwar generation to influence Korean society. If the prewar generation achieved economic development from the ashes of war and pursued conservatism and stability, the postwar generation grew up in relative affluence, pursuing reform and progress as the “democratization generation” that led the way in toppling the authoritarian regimes. The presidential and the legislative elections have certified this change in generations. A major power shift has occurred in Korean society.
In some ways, the ideological transformation from conservatism to progressivism is a natural result of the distribution of age groups. In the case of Korean society, unlike Western societies, it has not really experienced the intellectual tradition of liberalism, and this has led to the belief of many that these changes are ideologically radical.
At any rate, for mainstream Korean society, long dominated by conservatives and right-wing ideas, the addition to the National Assembly of Democratic Labor Party supporters and women, who had been on the fringes of politics and the social mainstream until recently, were great changes, even shocks, as it has been accustomed to Confucian-based authoritarianism.
Reading the profiles of the recently elected legislators, one sees the “resistance spirit” that is now spreading over Korean society. First, more than 20 percent of the new legislators have criminal records. Second, 23 percent of the men have not performed compulsory military service. It is a source of concern for the people that the legislators who are supposed to represent them have, for one reason or other, broken or slipped past the laws of this country. This is not to cast aspersions on sound criticism and protest, but it is worrisome that many of the legislators elected this time seem to have such a strong “anti” streak that they are accustomed and even addicted to criticism and protest.
Such resistance to authority is doubly apprehensive because it could fuel populism, which is already permeating Korean society. If there is strife between generations or ideologies, it should be resolved calmly, through conversation and debate, heading toward change for the better.
Instead, there are only candlelight vigils, the shaving of heads in protest, hunger strikes and marches. There are performances and events that cater to the people’s emotions, not to their reason. People are being entertained, not educated, as they form their opinions on political matters.
However, it is most regrettable that Korean society has the impression that it is undergoing a generational changeover. Generations are not changed over. They are succeeded. In any time and place, generations succeed one another. It is not that one generation lives and then disappears from the face of the earth while another generation replaces it. It is worrisome that the concept of “replacing” has occupied the minds and the actions of the people.
In particular, we should realize how dangerous an idea it is that established generations should be replaced, in their entirety, by younger generations. This would mean giving up all of our collective experience and the wisdom of age. In the new Assembly, 63 percent of the legislators are first-timers, while less than 30 percent of the incumbent candidates were re-elected. That is to say, more than 70 percent of the incumbent legislators were replaced. This outcome points to a current trend in society of replacing everything old with new. (In case of the United States Congress, the average rate of retention is 95 percent).
The results of the legislative elections have made the ruling party the majority and the opposition a minority. This promises a politics of conversation, compromise and cooperation. This should not take place merely among the ruling and opposition parties, but among the various regions, ideologies and generations of this society.
* The writer is a professor of law at Illinois State University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Chang Suk-jung