[Outlook] Neoliberalism and Korea

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[Outlook] Neoliberalism and Korea

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a precursor to the national constitution of France, was adopted on Aug. 26, 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly during the French Revolution. The declaration states that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” It also guarantees social equality among citizens.

The document guarantees not only the right to property, but the right to fight oppression.

The philosophy of enlightenment appeared to be established as a system in France. The king, however, refused to go along.

On Oct. 5 of that year, people gathered in front of the city hall in Paris and decided to march toward the Palace of Versailles, where the king was. Around 11 a.m., the march began. Soon, the crowd grew to 7,000. Surprisingly, most were women.

Rain began falling in the afternoon. A well-soaked crowd finally arrived at Versailles after 4 p.m. The king, perhaps feeling the change in the air, met with the leader of the group and promised to sign a bill to abolish the feudal system and to approve the declaration of rights.

But the king’s actions were not enough. The crowd invaded the palace the next morning, ending the monarchy and ushering in an era of liberalism. In the new society, the content of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen formed the core of the French Constitution.

By appearances, Korea years later would follow a similar path. When the Constitutional Assembly established the Constitution, the spirit of the human rights declaration was reflected fully. The basic order of a liberal democracy, stated in the preamble to the Constitution amended in 1987, is also in line with the French declaration of rights. Article 2 of the Korean Constitution deals with citizens’ duties and rights, providing specifics on how to achieve the spirit of the declaration.

Still, clauses about rights were often little more than talk in Korea’s modern history. During the rule of the Liberty Party, the clauses were moribund, overshadowed by the slogans of anti-communism.

During the era of military dictatorships, the national task of development dominated society; human rights were deemed a luxury.

While the nation promotes itself as a liberal country, the key to liberalism - human rights - was ignored. It’s fortunate that the country’s economy did, in fact, develop and democracy took root despite such neglect.

Ending the decade of liberal rule, a conservative administration was launched more than a year ago. When the Lee Myung-bak administration began, neoliberalism became the buzzword of the ruling-party, and even those who did feel comfortable with the concept felt relieved. The discussion about neoliberalism assured that the conservatives would no longer undermine the basics of liberalism by solely promoting anti-communist activity or economic effectiveness.

The principal neoliberal goal, according to political theorist Andrew Heywood, is to “roll back the frontiers of the state.” Neoliberals see that the relationship between the individual and the state in modern society has been defined upside down. They think that government intervention in citizens’ lives has intimidated the people, allowing the nation to rule over them instead of the other way around. They think the government deprived people of freedom and a sense of pride. That’s why they say that state intrusion into the lives of individuals must be drastically reduced.

Neoliberals try to resolve issues through mediation and negotiation rather than force and pressure. They prefer pragmatism. If the Lee administration actually implements such a spirit of neoliberalism despite many obstacles, many believe that a meaningful step forward will be made in Korea’s political history by the end of Lee’s five-year-term.

Such optimism, however, is questioned by many. While no one actually challenges the government, the ruling side raises its voice as if the reinforcement of public authority is a key issue. The National Intelligence Service, prosecutors and police have been strengthened, while the National Human Rights Commission faces massive downsizing.

The plan to curtail the commission’s authority, staff and budget is pushed forward by revising the administration’s ordinances, rather than revising the law. That undeniably lacks logic.

Does this mean that neoliberalism will become mere talk in this administration? Let’s hope not. The economy may move forward or backward depending on the times, but democracy must never take a backward step.


The writer is a professor at Korea University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Min-hwan
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