[Viewpoint] Waiting for a game-changer

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[Viewpoint] Waiting for a game-changer

“Don’t enter politics,” former President Roh Moo-hyun wrote in a posting on the Internet just two months before his tragic suicide. After declaring his Seoul mayoral bid, Park Won-soon paid a visit to Roh’s grave. The visit reminded me of one of Roh’s remarks. “If you go into politics to achieve something valuable for your neighbors, community and history, you will find later that the outcome is much less significant than your expectation,” Roh once wrote.

Roh’s writings reflected his feelings of regret and loss. They reflect the emptiness of politics. And yet, politics are also stimulating. Park, a civic activist, has jumped into the political realm declaring, “I will open a new door of hope and change.”

Has Park forgotten Roh’s advice? It probably does not matter because Park says he will put an end to politics as usual. In his writing, Roh was referring to classic politics. Park has promised to engage the public and push for changes.

When Roh emerged, he too raised hopes for a new type of politics. In fact, Roh’s campaign was bolder than Park’s. Ultimately, however, he met frustration. Roh wrote, “A politician has no privacy. A sniper is always ready. It is natural for a public figure to be scrutinized for his or her qualifications, but it is unfortunate for the candidate.” Undergoing scrutiny is a mandatory step for a politician.

In the 2000 general election, Park led the initiative for blacklisting unfit candidates. His alliance of civic groups scrutinized the candidates’ for draft dodging. The politicians complained of “groundless smear tactics.” But Park, at the time, was a persistent sniper.

In the Oct. 26 Seoul mayoral by-election, Park has been put on the defensive by accusations of draft dodging. He is suspected of having been made the adopted son of a missing relative to dodge the draft.

Another sniper is now in position. He is Rev. Soh Kyung-suk, the founder of the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, a civic group established before Park’s People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. “By criticizing conglomerates, Park received massive donations from them,” he argues. “Park is not the incarnation of justice.”

A Seoul mayor handles a 2.1 trillion won ($1.8 billion) budget. Leadership requires the ability to manage public servants. Civil servants of the city are experts at changing positions depending on times. A mayor often struggles with bureaucracy. Policy vision and strong motivation are not enough. This applies to both candidates: Park and Na Kyung-won of the Grand National Party.

Park’s candidacy is the result of the failure of conventional politics. “Politics is in crisis,” former GNP head Park Geun-hye said, and it feels real.

Celebrated liberal scholar Choi Jang-jip already warned of a greater crisis at the time of street protests in 2008 against the government’s decision to resume U.S. beef imports. “Unless conventional party politics change, unless they resolve the issues raised by a new generation and class, they will be pushed out by street politics,” he said.

Park’s rise shows the power of street politics. The leftist civic groups have already started attacking the Lee Myung-bak administration. Inconsistency in policies, poor understanding of history, the powerlessness of pragmatism without ideology and shortcomings in communication are their focus.

The civic groups said they uphold Roh ’s spirit, and yet they ignore many realities. The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the plan to build a naval base on Jeju Island are Roh’s legacies. The leftist groups shrewdly used them as issues to attack the Lee government.

The Democratic Party was overwhelmed by the civic groups and the leadership ended up merely repeating their slogans. It became hard to differentiate the DP from civic groups. The reason for the DP’s existence has disappeared.

Street politics have gained popularity because of the incompetence of Lee and the GNP. Politicians create compromise and concession amidst conflict and confrontation. Politics produce policies based on the people’s desires and to quell the public’s rages. Lee, however, treated conflicts as wasteful events. His indifference to ideology and the core values of political parties prompted his supporters to leave.

The ruling and opposition parties share the same destiny. And yet, Lee did not see any importance in meeting with the DP’s chairmen, Sohn Hak-kyu and Chung Sye-kyun. In contrast, the people’s desires for alternative politics - which explains the popularity of Ahn Cheol-soo - became stronger. That allowed Park to enter politics grandly.

The Democratic Party is now facing a strong demand for restructuring. Park’s political fate will decide how far the restructuring should go. The Grand National Party is not free from the demand of realignment. And Lee is becoming a lame duck faster and faster because he neglected politics.

A leader must understand the public’s needs and initiate changes. The young generation is tired of building resumes and paying high tuitions. The Occupy Wall Street protests will soon spread to Korea. The world is waiting for a true game-changer.

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

By Park Bo-gyoon
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