[INSIGHT]The taming of ‘the five forces’A meeting was held between President Roh Moo-hyun and economic news editors at the Blue House on June 11. One of journalists asked if it were true that the governing party’s five targets of reform were Samsung Group, the judiciary, Seoul National University, Gangnam and the conservative newspapers ― Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Dong-a Ibo. The president strongly denied it, saying that he never considered such things.
Mr. Roh explained, “The assumption may be possible that if such five power centers unite solidly, paradoxically reform would become shaky, but the hypothesis itself has no significance.”
This classification of the mainstream into five forces is plausible. Gangnam is a representative wealthy area in Korea. Conservative forces are concentrated in Gangnam, as is confirmed in every legislative and presidential election. Moving the capital could bring the collapse of Gangnam and its soaring real estate valuations.
It is also true that, despite a few changes in government, many graduates of Seoul National University have consistently risen to positions of power. Arguments for diluting the influence of the university by abolishing it or introducing a joint degree system for national universities have emerged recently. Doing away with Seoul National University means undercutting the Korean elite.
Although there are differences in character, the Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo, and Dong-a Ilbo are chief representatives of the conservative press. They have become targets of media reform pushed by the Uri Party.
The prosecution and the courts, institutions protecting law and order, have become objects of reform as well. Controversies over the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court, the introduction of Schwurgericht, the German-style jury system, and the establishment of a corruption investigation office have caused strong debate. Some repeatedly pointed out these proposals would strengthen the power of legal civic groups outside the court, while weakening the existing forces in the prosecution and the courts.
Lastly, Samsung Group, Korea’s leading corporation, has been pointed to as an object of reform every time a new government has come to power. There’s nothing new about Samsung.
Whether the government intended it or not, remarkably, these five forces are objects of reform.
Soaring real estate prices in Gangnam, the myth of having to live in Gangnam to enter Seoul National University, the track of success from Seoul National University to the bar examination, collective criticism of major news outlets against the president, overall distrust of the court system ― where have-nots are treated as guilty and haves as innocent ― and large companies’ collusion with politicians may all be symbolic of entrenched mainstream interests.
It is possible to ask whether these forces play proper roles or are the sources of social turbulence, so much so that they need to be overhauled. Therefore, the assumption shouldn’t be ignored as just an unpleasant warning. Our leaders should take this opportunity to express humility and seek ways to change themselves.
This society is bound to fall if it is subsumed in a backward-looking political environment of dissension compounded by a tendency to pull down those who have made advances toward living in a globally competitive system with an egalitarian ideology.
We should know that the ongoing controversies over moving the capital, reforming the judiciary and media and the abolition of Seoul National University will not lead to the progress of the Korean society, but drive it back to the past.
These old-fashioned approaches to solving social problems are based upon opposing old conservatism with the old liberal viewpoint. This is anachronistic. It shouldn’t be a change forced by the liberals while in power. A coercive approach would not appeal to a society where half of the people claim to be conservative.
“A third way” based on the roles of the market and public control should be sought simultaneously. Reform should be conducted such that the wealthy can be respected and Seoul National University can make progress toward becoming a world-class research-centered college.
Another problem is the uncertainties brought on by the populism that underlies our society.
The five forces are all isolated. Reform shouldn’t be like a witch-hunt that exposes the weakness of the minority. Every society has a mainstream, which is replaced when it fails to act on the principle of noblesse oblige.
A new mainstream will take its place according to market logic. Forcing change by way of agitation, administrative power, moving the capital, and reforming the judiciary and the media is the violence of populism and coup d’etat of old liberalism.
Social turmoil will not disappear unless the old liberal view changes to new ways of thinking in a new age, just as the old conservatism should renew itself.
* The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kwon Young-bin