[Viewpoint] Sorry state of democracy

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[Viewpoint] Sorry state of democracy

Freedom House is an organization in the United States that monitors and checks civil liberties in many countries. Every year it releases a report, “Freedom in the World,” which rates two categories: political rights and civil liberties. Each category has a rating system from 1 to 7 points. North Korea, for instance, gets the highest scores in both categories year in, year out. So it’s clear that the higher the score, the worse the conditions in the country.

South Korea has received 1 point for political rights and 2 for civil rights every year since 2003, as have Japan or Italy. This means our country belongs to the highest group in terms of freedom.

The report is one of the most frequently cited, and thus considered reliable, when discussing the degree of democracy in a given country. According to the reports, international society views democracy in South Korea as decent and healthy.

Based on the report, the argument by former President Kim Dae-jung and the Democratic Party that democracy has made a setback in our country is not at all convincing. The 2002 Freedom in the World report, which was published during the last stage of the Kim administration, gave South Korea 2 points for both categories. The organization obviously feels that political rights here have improved since then.

Some professors, religious figures and the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union maintain that the incumbent administration enacted political revenge on the late President Roh Moo-hyun, claiming it has misused its power to enforce the law, that freedom of speech and assembly have retreated and that journalists are oppressed.

It is not that all their arguments are wrong. Amnesty International recently announced that human rights in South Korea have experienced a setback and the freedom of the press has been interfered with. Amnesty International has mentioned that protesters were beaten and that some journalists, such as the producers of MBC’s “PD Diary” that made the controversial episode on mad cow disease last year, were arrested. But these reports refer to only a part of what is happening in our country. It is hard to say they represent the overall circumstances in our country and many have different opinions about these incidents.

After all, why should violent, illegal protests where bamboo spears are used against the police be tolerated?

Even if we accept that the law-enforcement authorities overreacted to some extent and perhaps violated human rights, it is hard to agree when some liken our situation to past military rule when violence and torture were commonplace, and then call the incumbent administration dictatorship.

On the contrary, the incumbent administration is so weak that it has been subdued by violent protests and is blocked by the main opposition party even though the ruling party has a majority of seats in the National Assembly.

So, is democracy in South Korea really good enough? Freedom House evaluates it based on democratic procedures, including free and fair elections, rule of law, guarantee of basic rights and freedom of the press. It only shows that the basic structure for democracy has been prepared.

If how democracy is run or whether actual progress has been made were included in the criteria, Korea would have received much lower scores. In particular, our National Assembly has stopped operating properly. We would certainly get 7 points for that. Late last year, lawmakers used an electronic saw and a sledgehammer during a fight at the legislature. Netizens in China ridiculed the situation. They said, “Is that what they call democracy?” or “Viva Mao Zedong-style people’s democratic dictatorship!”

They said Korea pursues not democracy but the goal of becoming a “pig.” In Chinese, “pig” is pronounced the same way as the word for “democracy.” Interestingly, Freedom House categorizes China as a country where freedom is not guaranteed.

The opposition party is not entirely wrong when it says democracy in our country has retreated. Democracy is certainly facing a serious crisis. Our country was democratized by the June 29 Declaration in 1987 but democracy has not improved much since.

It is tiring to mention again the poor quality of our politics, but former President Kim and the Democratic Party are not free from responsibility. They were core figures of our politics between the June 29 Declaration and the present, and they took power for the last two administrations. They have to share responsibility, if not take all of it. It is not right for them to blame the incumbent administration.

So why is democracy suffering in our country?

What is the reason? The January issue of Time magazine ran a report on the failure of democracy in Asia, saying the middle class in South Korea tends to regard democracy as an irritating, incompetent or corrupt system.

There is no time for ruling and opposition parties to waste with fighting.

by Heo Nam-chin
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