[Viewpoint] The nation faces a tidal shift

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[Viewpoint] The nation faces a tidal shift

A new tide has arrived. Consider: Unionized rail workers returned to work before physical confrontations. They cited safety concerns as one of the reasons for halting their eight-day walkout. A couple of days later, corporate and trade union representatives worked out a moratorium on the government initiative to allow multiple unions in a single workplace and to limit company payments to union members who work only on union business. Both sides worked out these thorny issues that had overshadowed a troubled economy rather easily.

Even some changes, though more subtle, are happening on the political front. Mayors and governors affiliated with the main opposition Democratic Party stood shoulder-to-shoulder with President Lee Myung-bak as they cut the tape to kick off renovations on the Yeongsan River as a part of the multibillion-won four-river restoration project that has been heavily contested by opposition lawmakers. In the groundbreaking ceremony for Honam Express Railway, DP lawmakers joined the president’s entourage. Such nonpartisan activities amid ongoing political wrangling would have been unimaginable in the past. The decades-old regional antipathy may finally be thawing. Labor strife and regionalism that have long dogged our political reality may be slowly ebbing away. The change is not coincidental, but triggered by popular demand.

The past government partly encouraged labor disputes. Whenever disputes erupted, the government intervened to end them quietly and quickly by urging companies to accept labor demands. Few were able to resist the unions. The government prided itself as an advocate for the underprivileged and oppressed when, in fact, it mostly helped sponsor union activities. Over 400 union workers at the national railway corporation are paid more than the chief executive. Yet they went on a strike demanding more pay. Naturally, they were met by an icy public response.

The Yeongsan River is so dried up that its riverbed is exposed, yet some lawmakers oppose reservoir building for fear of environmental damage. A bigger environmental disaster looms if the river is left in its current state. Leaders of local governments and representatives from the Jeolla provinces, the traditional political home of the DP, have put aside political affiliation for the greater benefit of their land and people.

Human beings are inclined to repeat the customs and habits of the past. We act and respond out of habit to recurrent events, reacting in knee-jerk fashion to problems that arise. It is the simple law of experience. But the same patterns of actions and responses can be counterproductive when we face a new situation.

Some are nostalgic for the Park Chung Hee style of authoritative leadership when progress is slow. They feel frustrated at the pace of action and want things done now. But we can never go backwards.

In those past days, the economy was driven at the expense of the of the workers and democracy. That environment cannot and should not return. Also gone are the days when mere cries of “hurray” for the regional political father Kim Dae-jung bought votes. A militant platform to fight for workers’ rights no longer gets warm support. That had worked in the past, but now people have changed their outlooks.

If opposition lawmakers, paying little attention to these changes, protest the incumbent government‘s policies merely for the sake of opposition, they can be voted out of office. The ruling party and government will strike hard if they want to take credit for recent developments. They are poised to gain from the ripples of a tidal shift that is taking place.

Some politicians don’t seem to recognize these changes. A person who served as the justice minister in the former administration broke into the National Assembly speaker’s office to stage a sit-in. Legislators spend time on the streets to protest even as pending issues pile up in the Assembly rooms, regardless of little support from the public. The government is spending heavily to jump-start the economy. Public anxiety is increasing about the effect this spending spree will have on inflation and taxes. Yet no one is there to put on the brakes because the opposition is busy fighting for other things.

The ruling party members have smirks on their faces. They may think they can triumph over the opposition and labor. But that is never going to happen.

People hate vanity as much as knee-jerk opposition. Life runs in cycles. When things go up, they must come down. Modesty is hard to maintain when things are moving up. Vanity is frequent but modesty and compassion are a rarity among people with power. The ruling party should engage the opposition and hear out labor’s opinions. The public has become more sharp and reasonable. They can think and judge fairly. Both the ruling and opposition parties must learn to ride the new tide if they want to avoid drowning.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Moon Chang-geuk
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