[OUTLOOK]Korea’s chronic political illness

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[OUTLOOK]Korea’s chronic political illness

Manhae Han Yong-woon, an early-20th-century Buddhist monk and renowned writer, had a spiritual awakening at a small temple on Mount Seorak in 1917. He wrote a poem that begins, “Wherever a man arrives, that place is his hometown.” Whenever I moved to a new city for a new job, I used to quote that phrase in my inaugural speech, to express my resolve to do my best and consider the new place my hometown.
As the government tries to win the favor of residents of a certain region, and as a new, regional political party seems about to be born, it would appear that another election season is around the corner. It is also rumored that politicians hailing from certain provinces are reconsidering their affiliation with the governing Uri Party. However slowly, Korean politics’ chronic disease of regionalism is about to flare up again.
In retrospect, it is easy to understand why Korea developed the regional politics that have become such a problem. Geographically, it is a small country. Its people belong to the same race and have the same skin color, and their religions to not vary according to region.
The only differences to be found are in which part of the country a person hails from ― east, west, south oe north. This is an incidental, non-essential distinction, but it follows you throughout your life, as if it were a name tag.
It is natural that people hailing from the same area should feel friendly toward one another and share a love for the place they came from. But Koreans sometimes take this too far, leading closed lives in which they socialize only with people from the same region, and don’t think twice about despising people who come from somewhere else.
Regional antagonism has existed for quite some time. But it really became serious after 1965, when politicians from both the governing and opposition parties deliberately played to the public’s regionalism in search of more votes. That deepened the antagonism.
In our elections, sweeping regional support for a particular party has become commonplace; one often sees people protesting ill treatment of their own district despite its overwhelming support for the party. It has been a long time since the government’s personnel records noted each employee’s hometown. But the news media often carry reports that cite the number of civil servants who come from each region of the country. Those reports play a big part in promoting regionalism.
There have been a variety of regional rivalries. Once, it was Yeongnam against Honam, but the situation become more complicated when the Chungcheong provinces joined in. Now the Seoul area antagonizes the local provinces, and even the two halves of Seoul, on either side of the Han River, have started to square off.
Of course, there have been efforts to curtail regionalism, within the government and civil society alike. But the sincerity and the consistency that would have been needed to cure this disease were not sufficiently present.
Primary responsibility for ending regional antagonism rests with the politicians who provide its root cause. All political leaders must give up the habit of appealing to regionalism. They must have the generosity and confidence to embrace both the people who voted for them and the people who didn’t. If personnel management places too much importance on whether a person shares the reformists’ “code,” or whether or not he is amenable to those in power, public sentiment will become very hostile in the areas that have been left out.
But trying to correct the problem arbitrarily will lead to complaints of reverse discrimination. The region from which the president hails has reaped the most benefits, so people from that region must accept that they should concede some things to people from other parts of the country. That is the politics of integration.
Balanced regional development is a very important task. But it must be promoted in a productive way, in which projects are developed that are suitable for each region. Approaching the problem from a mathematical point of view, handing major institutions out to each province as if the country were being carved up with a knife, will not fundamentally solve anything. Quite the contrary, it could become yet another cause for regional antagonism. Those in power should stop chasing their short-term interests and approach the issue with a sense of historical duty.
But politicians don’t deserve all the blame for regional conflict. The people as a whole, civil servants and civic groups, must launch a pan-national movement together. People from different regions should work and relax together. They must visit each other, form friendships and encourage inter-regional marriages. Let us create a political culture in which candidates who were born elsewhere compete for seats in local elections, and citizens cast their votes for candidates from other regions.
The song “Hwagaejangto,” by the popular singer Cho Young-nam, could be an inspiration: “Along the Seomjin River that divides Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces/ There is a local market called Hwagaejangteo. / Villagers from Hadong in the south and Gurae in the north mingle at the market every five days / ...We are all cousins there / Exchanging love and hate / Gyeongsang people and Jeolla people meet at Hwagaejangteo.”
When people develop a sense of themselves based on exchanges like that, the doors that have been closed by regionalism will open. The task should be accomplished in this generation, not left for posterity. When will our researchers find a cure for this chronic disease?

* The writer is a senior attorney at Shin & Kim. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Kim Kyung-han

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