[Letter to the editor]Immature democracy and government
On Nov. 22, during demonstrations in 13 cities against a South Korea-United States free trade agreement, several government offices were heavily damaged and some protesters even attacked the police with wooden canes. It was complete anarchy.
What led the demonstrators to be so violent and irrational? The first reason lies in what may be called an “anti-public” government. From the beginning of the year, the South Korean government has pushed for the South Korea-U.S. FTA. Since an FTA with the economic superpower contains many risks, it naturally brought a lot of opposition from farmers and other interest groups. However, what actually seems to have triggered people’s anger was the government’s attitude toward the public during negotiations. The Roh administration announced that it would not disclose the document on the negotiations for three years. In other words, the government excluded public opinion while negotiating with the United States. At a time when interest groups’ fear of being overwhelmed by U.S. products and services was soaring, such a measure was enough to drive them crazy; what happened on the 22nd showed their anger.
The people can’t avoid criticism either, because the second cause of the violence comes from an immature understanding of liberalism. Along with democracy, Korea’s liberalism is often called “planted” liberalism because, unlike other Western countries where it developed through trial and error, Korea’s liberalism was virtually “planted” by the United States and the United Nations. Consequently, Koreans’ understanding of liberalism is incomplete.
One of the core elements of liberalism is freedom. Everyone has the right to act as he or she pleases, on one condition: they can insist on their rights within the the boundaries of the law. Koreans seem to know only half of liberalism, for while they perfectly perceive that no one can stop them from condemning the administration, they do not seem to know that such freedom of expression should be based on the law.
What measures then should we take in order to become a more mature nation and public and prevent such a chaotic situation from happening again?
First, the government should think more of the side of the citizens. It should reflect on their demands and explain to them why it cannot accept some. In short, the government should have two negotiations simultaneously when it is discussing important issues with foreign countries, as the social theorist Robert Putnam had argued. The two-level game theory developed by Mr. Putnam emphasizes that since politics at the domestic and international levels are fundamentally interdependent, national leaders must pay serious attention to domestic and international forces simultaneously. This applies not only to the Korea-U.S. FTA. For example, the administration encountered severe opposition due to its unilateral actions in trying to change important policies in education and in the relocation of U.S. military bases outside Seoul. For more responsible government, sufficient communication is not an option, but a must.
Second, the public should be educated more about liberalism. Education is a powerful tool for enlightening people if it is used correctly. For instance, while the older generation may still have hostile attitudes toward North Korea due to anti-North Korea education, our young generation hardly regards the North in the same way, thanks to more open-minded education. This powerful tool can be used to plant the right concept of liberalism so that people can have more respect for the law and government and become more mature citizens.
Thanks to rapid development, Koreans now enjoy a very affluent life. However, we still can’t grasp many things fully, such as liberalism and a responsible government. South Korea should look back on the path it has gone through swiftly and try to gain what lessons it can from the past in order to survive in the future.
Kim Min-sik, Songpa, Seoul