[Viewpoint] How checks become unbalanced

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[Viewpoint] How checks become unbalanced

By nature, a human society is ruled by those with power. The essence of politics is dominance and the use of power. The military and police defend the peace and security of a nation and society, guarding against both external aggression and internal disturbance, and are a crucial base for political power. Seizing power means suppressing rogue elements, administering tax collection and using administrative authority to rule over society.

But as political systems become democratized, the media emerges as a key power player. Democracy and capitalism have been integrated, and the corporate wealth that dominates markets has also grown as a new form of power.

When the political, media and economic spheres maintain a healthy relationship by keeping each another in check, a nation can find stability and prosperity. If they don’t, anxiety can grow in society, and development and advancement will slow down.

Since the founding of the Republic of Korea, the relationship among the three powers has gone through great changes. The political sphere has always attempted to dominate the media and corporate realms.

However, when the media is suppressed and does not serve its function as a critic of people in power, politicians become arrogant and the society corrupt. If companies focus on getting benefits by colluding with the government, fair competition collapses and the market economy ultimately loses vitality. That’s why cozy relationships between the government and the media, and between politics and business, are despised and discouraged.

During the authoritarian military regimes, the media and big business were dominated by the government, and some companies benefitted from special protection by the powers-that-were. However, democratization weakened the power of the government considerably, and the media and corporate world, especially conglomerates operating in a wide spectrum of industries, gained influence.

The financial crisis served as a critical turning point for a change in those dynamics. The government can no longer influence the financial industry, and companies’ financial structures were improved. Economic freedom became guaranteed, so companies no longer had to rely on the government for survival.

In contrast, politicians became increasingly dependent on donations and fund-raising from the private sector as elections became more frequent and competition became fiercer. Companies are exerting great influence on the media through advertising, and on academia and opinion leaders through research funding and other grants. In a way, conglomerates lead public opinion nowadays.

These are the three entities that lead Korean society. Healthy checks and balances among the three powers will maintain the healthy development of our society. Yet, excessive collusion or discord among the three entities will easily distort policies and society.

The government recently attempted to strike a deal with the media and the corporate sector. The administration offered new general-program channels for the media and altered financial policies, such as relaxing the rigid division between financial and industrial capital and an abolition of the regulation on total equity investment, to win cooperation from the businesses sector.

So in the first few years, the media partly shut its eyes and refrained from overt criticism of the government. Industries welcomed the policies as market friendly and praised the government.

Partly because of the media’s businesses’ friendly attitude, the Lee Myung-bak administration came to be deluded about how things were going in Korean society, the real condition of its citizens’ happiness and the real state of public opinion.

After the new television channels were awarded and the government started twisting the arms of companies in various ways, the honeymoon is nearly over, and the ruling party is now faced with difficulties. Tension among the three powers has grown and the dynamic has returned to what it should be.

But moderation is needed. If confrontation becomes too intense, the system can become distorted. If the media misleads the public against the government, national policy can be affected in a negative way and citizens will ultimately suffer from the damage. It is not fair to criticize the government by saying the public is not supporting the administration because of an increase or decrease in real estate prices.

In the previous administration, the power struggle between the media and administration resulted in a leftist economic policy and excessively generous assistance to North Korea. The current ruling party took a friendly stance toward conglomerates and an unnecessarily hard-line attitude toward Pyongyang in its early days just to set it apart from its predecessor.

A healthy balance in the relationship among the three powers is very important. The expanding influence of conglomerates should be monitored and checked. But the purpose is to build a solid market-competition structure, not the political calculation to win votes or change public sentiment.

Since 1987, Korea’s political democracy has advanced faster than its economic democracy, and democracy in Korea always has the chance of veering to plutocracy. That we have to guard against.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily.
The writer is a professor at Sogang University’s School of International Studies.

By Cho Yoon-jae
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