[OUTLOOK]Half a step at a timeDepending on the dynamics of direction and speed, a change in the political system can either contribute to democratization or completely destroy it. Korea’s process of democratization, which has been in progress since 1987, has come to a turning point where a serious review of its direction and speed is necessary. As citizens grow insecure and frustrated day by day, the suspension of the operation of the National Assembly and the incongruence between the president and the ruling party are fundamentally destroying the trust and expectation of citizens in democratic politics. At this gloomy juncture, I am concerned that people may be growing nostalgic for a dictatorship which can reverse this situation instantly with strong state power. Therefore, it is time for citizens to thoroughly review the merits and weaknesses of the democratic system of Korea so that we can protect our fragile democracy from the specters of rightist authoritarianism and leftist adventurism.
The democratization of Korea that started with the June Resistance of 1987 and the subsequent June 29 Declaration has continued through four presidential elections. In international society, Korea is considered to have set an example of succeeding in a relatively smooth transition from authoritarianism to democracy. That positive evaluation is based on the perception that a national consensus on the direction of the political change was reached easily. Most of all, all citizens hoped for a reform for the future instead of returning to the past. Meanwhile, Korea naturally embraced the social democratic direction in the process of converting from authoritarianism to democracy as we had seen in the precedents of Southern and Eastern Europe. Because the majority of citizens share a future-oriented, reform-driven sense of direction, the Korean-style politics of compromise led the unique democratization process despite turbulence.
The democratization process of Korea received a relatively high evaluation because Koreans showed national unity, or more precisely avoided division, by cleverly controlling the process’s speed as well as direction. Let’s look back at the four presidential elections. While those advocating democratization could have won the 1987 presidential election, Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil failed to join hands. Owing to that division, Roh Tae-woo was elected president with 36.7 percent of the votes, and the result minimized the shock of radical political change and kept the existing powers from suddenly being estranged. Meanwhile, in the 13th National Assembly election, which was held two months after Mr. Roh came into office, the opposition won far more seats than the governing party and the democratization engine was maintained. In the 1992 presidential election, Kim Young-sam, one of the democratization movement leaders, was elected and became the first civilian president of the country. While he took the first step towards the left, his victory was a product of compromise ― the merger of three political parties. Korean politics kept moving left with the election of Kim Dae-jung as president in 1997, but we have to keep in mind that his victory was a result of collaboration between the left and the right as he formed a coalition with Kim Jong-pil. The result of the 2002 presidential election resulted in a bigger shift to the left, but the coalition between Roh Moo-hyun and Chung Mong-joon was an important trigger. The changes in Korean politics can be seen as successful examples of the democratization process because the changes were not radical or excessive. By respecting compromise and public opinion, the process advanced half a step at a time. It was a lucky combination of the wisdom of Koreans and the fortune of history.
As we approach the 2007 presidential election, Korean politics have started to tremble and grave symptoms are being observed already. Division and confrontation over the private school law, the nuclear issue and human rights abuses of the North have grown too serious. We should never ignore the simple lesson we acquired from the democratization process. Without exception, the presidents we have elected were all backed by a minority. They could govern the country and prevent national division only through collaboration, compromise and coalition. Therefore, presidents of the past, present and future must beware the vain delusion that they are supported by the absolute majority of citizens or that they will become historic figure all themselves.
The 2007 presidential election is waiting for a decision by citizens on whether to accelerate the march to the left or to turn to the right. The public will not commit the folly of exposing our hard-earned democracy to political radicalism and excessive speed.
We desperately need the wisdom of taking half a step at a time.
* The writer, a former prime minister, is an advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo