[Viewpoint] Obama tweets, but we still can’t

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[Viewpoint] Obama tweets, but we still can’t

The word “reform” may bring on fatigue, but for many people, it’s still a needed force in politics. That’s why there were high expectations when the National Assembly formed a special committee aimed at voluntary reform.

As the special committee’s tenure comes to its close, however, it has failed to reform anything. Its attempt to lower the punishment for election law violations was not only unsuccessful, it was severely criticized by the media.

But election laws, in fact, are extremely strict. Even misstating one’s career experience on a business card can be grounds for losing a seat. But while it’s understandable the lawmakers wanted to ease the restrictions, any evaluation of the special committee’s activities must still be negative.

The committee deserves its poor reputation because from the start, it was ambiguous in its direction and justification of political reform. Its members never discussed why change was needed, or what direction reform should take.

Worse, the committee members failed to understand the changes wrought by a new era and the need to adapt existing political systems. Rather, they limited themselves to addressing conflicts between factions.

Furthermore, not a single issue linked with the public well-being was addressed by the committee. The special committee’s activities appeared to be irrelevant, because the lawmakers only focused on what interested them, not what mattered to the people.

One good example is the possibility of running an election campaign through social media such as Twitter. With the development of democracy, elections have become familiar political events. When election time arrives, however, people actually feel uncomfortable, because the laws governing elections restrict their political expression and communication.

Activities that are normal in other times are often illegal during election periods. Such a problem associated with regulation grows worse with the advancement of the information age. Because the current laws governing politics and elections were made before 24-hour information became readily available in so many media, the laws fail to address the rapidly changing environment of political communication. Analog laws governing the digital era unreasonably restrain people’s political involvement, turning those who want to take part in the process into criminals.

It’s interesting that a significant number of politicians are actively embracing the changes in the political communication environment. The Grand National Party said it will provide smartphones to party officials. In addition to the National Assembly speaker, a handful of politicians are already actively using social media, including Twitter, to communicate with their constituents.

The National Election Commission and the police, however, said it will be illegal for a candidate to use Twitter as a means of campaigning for the June local elections. As the availability of information has increased, the political communication structure has been completely reshaped, but Korea’s laws and regulations fail to accommodate the changes.

U.S. President Barack Obama is widely known to have benefited from using Twitter as a tool. During his campaign, 130,000 Americans subscribed to his messages. Now Koreans have followed his example, tracking Obama and exchanging their own messages through Twitter. If they get an interesting message from Obama, they use Twitter to forward it to their friends. This action is not, of course, illegal.

Yet if a candidate for the June local election exchanged messages with his followers through Twitter, and the followers forwarded the messages to others, that would be an election law violation. The reality is that it is acceptable to communicate with the U.S. president through Twitter, but illegal to use the same means to communicate with a Korean politician.

If the National Election Commission and the police insist that the current laws give them no other options, the National Assembly must resolve the problem. The special committee on political reform needs to abolish unnecessary political regulations and revise laws to accommodate the demands of our time, so that politics can become a comfortable, natural part of life. Political reform in our time must begin with changing seemingly trivial things linked with everyday life, rather than talking about grand goals of constitutional amendment or changing the governing system.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Soongsil University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kang Won-taek
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