[Outlook]Community vital to conservatismIt is timely that the president is involved in a heated debate about political ideologies, like strong centrism or flexible progressivism. Politics is bound to lead to consternation and regression when it does not understand the primary visions of the state and public values.
Any ideological axe-grinding should be deterred in advance of the upcoming presidential election, because it causes consternation over ideologies. This is worse than a vacuum of ideologies.
How terms of political position, such as conservative or progressive, are used in the context of Korean politics should be carefully reviewed. How the terms differ in politics must be compared to other areas of society.
To clarify these terms while concerns on political ideologies are arising will contribute to the advance of Korean politics. Above all, we must correct the tendency to misunderstand or even distort the original meanings of conservative and progressive.
Originally, the English term “conserve” refers to preventing injury, decay, waste or loss; or to using or managing (natural resources) wisely, meaning “preserve” or “save.” Similarly, the term conservative, much like environmental conservation, refers to steadfast preservation of foundational conditions and institutions of the state and society. It does not necessarily mean a headlong “reactionary” who holds the prevailing values and interests of an ancien regime without any critical evaluation. That is, conservatism does not doctrinally oppose reforms when they are required.
The progressive, on the other hand ― meaning advocates of change, improvement or reform required for historical change or for other social needs ― is by no means the revolutionary who entirely denies tradition, convention and the institutional structure of current society.
The British Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, is progressive but stands for the opposite of revolution.
Understood in their proper ideological context, the rivalry between conservative and progressive can introduce options for the public. It doesn’t have to refer to political divisions of friends and enemies.
This being the case, how did the extreme diametric antagonism in Korean politics between those who claim to be conservative on the one hand and progressive on the other come about?
Deformed political ideologies in Korea might be the aftermath of the division of Korea into South and North for 62 years, and of the successful democratization and industrialization pushed forward under such hardship.
Nationalism, which holds the nation as the supreme source of identity and the non-negotiable value of all, is in general likely to be a conservative or right-wing ideology. In fact, right after the independence of Korea in the late 1940s and the establishment of the Republic of Korea, the conservative right-wing sects referred to themselves as a “nationalist bulwark” and contested international socialist parties.
By contrast Marxist-Leninism and progressive parties were represented by the epithet “international” and a red flag. That said, progressivism in Korea nowadays supports exclusive nationalism with an emphatic “us” as its supreme value, whereas conservatism favors open internationalist policies and following on the flow of globalization.
Also in South-North Korean issues, the fact that conservatives are now advocates of issues traditionally touted by progressives ― anti-nuclear weapons, anti-despotism, pro-human rights ― manifestly reflects the deformation of Korean politics.
This deformation is attributable to the religious defense of unification found in some progressive factions. Denying the fact that all Koreans want unification of Korea, they define only themselves as the unification party and the rest as being anti-unification.
Their dogged ideology loses its way when they avoid answers to the question of what we would have to pay for unification. Unification is indeed an important issue for the majority of Koreans. Yet the general agreement among progressives is that peace and freedom are equally as important as unification. This is why the idea of a community beyond fanatical doctrines and exclusion is urgently called for.
The so-called conservatives are above criticism that they neglected the idea of community to consolidate a democratic society after democratization. We succeeded in democratization but are left with the scars and sometimes still bleeding wounds of the authoritarian regime. Also left is the chasm between the haves and haves-not that accompanied and was deepened by industrialization.
Conservatism without answers to these questions (in other words, conservatism deficient of the idea of community) will not be able to secure its vision of society, despite its ideological elaborations, including centralism.
*The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo
More in Columns
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?
Fighting Chinese patriotism
The curse of the presidency