[Viewpoint] Seoul’s ‘civilian uprising’

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[Viewpoint] Seoul’s ‘civilian uprising’

Heavy taxes, corruption in the upper class and incessant famine gave rise to civilian uprisings against the ruling class during the Joseon Dynasty in the 1860s. Peasant rebellions arose in more than 70 rural regions across the nation. In the epicenter in Jinju, Gyeongsang, hundreds of farmers raided and burned down the residences of corrupt landlords and bureaucrats. A government administrator who investigated the case reported to the royal court that with rebels in such active state everything could collapse. “I shake at the thought,” he said.

The ruling party may be writing up a similar report to its executive committee with just a week left before the Seoul mayoral by-election. Few took notice when the practically unknown human rights lawyer and activist Park Won-soon declared he would run. Then Ahn Cheol-soo, a software pioneer and public hero to the young and disgruntled, raised a commotion by simply hinting that his interest was turning to politics.

At the peak of the furor, Ahn publicly announced his support for Park and he adopted his halo. The main opposition Democratic Party willingly became his cheerleader, although he is not a member, and threw its primary for the Seoul election at his feet. Splinter opposition groups naturally joined in with their own hosannas. An allied civilian force was established with blinding speed.

The Seoul mayoral by-election instantly turned into a historical contest, with entrenched, business-as-usual politicians taken on by forces of the grass-roots, and Korea was marching in step with the global trend of civilian uprisings. Grand National Party kingmaker Park Geun-hye roused to lead the ruling conservative forces and campaigned with the party’s mayoral candidate, Na Kyung-won. We will have to see how she fares in this new kind of contest against the civilian alliance rallying behind Park.

Grass-roots groups arise when mainstream politicians disappoint. They act as a kind of reset button in democratic societies. The majority political party has failed to listen to the voice of the people. For the last decade, the Seoul Metropolitan Government was primarily consumed with reconstructing the city and giving it a higher profile - in effect, concentrating on its facade. The civilian alliance is a natural by-product. It cannot be denied that Korean democracy has really evolved when a civilian activist is close to governing the capital, which accounts for nearly half of the country’s economic power.

But the awe stops there. What are the two contenders actually promising? Na’s banner promises “politics empathizing everyday lives.” Park claims to be the champion of “the politics of hope and understanding.” What do either of those slogans mean?

Neither candidate envisions turning Seoul into an international metropolitan on a par with Los Angeles or Berlin. Nor do they articulate Seoulites’ duty to other major cities. The contenders are ambiguous in their philosophy toward governing the capital. If they were to govern for a decade, what would their key principles be?

What are their thoughts on resolving income inequalities and a lack of empathy for the disadvantaged? How would they help the jobless, homeless senior citizens and working moms desperate for affordable day care? What are their ideas to turn the capital into a city where both the struggling and wealthy can live in harmony and peace?

If they have no answers to these questions, neither side is better than the other. What Seoul really needs is leadership that can bridge the wealth gap between its northern and southern parts.

Behind Park are progressive activists and groups. They forged a strategic alliance to overthrow the conservative leadership in the capital and now want to grab national power in the next presidential elections.

Their cause is strong. The problem is that local civic groups lack any kind of broad mandate nationwide. They are not all-inclusive and nationwide organizations. Except for a few environmental organizations, most are groups of experts in specialized fields. The People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, the largest among them, has only 10,000 members and is run by a small group. We do not have broad community organizations like the London Citizens, which is composed of a variety of groups like churches, mosques, students, schools and unions.

Both conservative and liberal groups primarily pursue political interests. Democracy will retreat if they are merely concerned with reinforcing their inner solidarity instead of bridging the gap among different classes. We cannot but wonder what the administrative structure will look like once immature civilian activists occupy City Hall. Can such political novices steer a ship filled with various civilian groups that have different interests? The modern-day civilian revolt raises both expectations and worries.

*The writer is a sociology professor of Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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