[Viewpoint] End the war in politics

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[Viewpoint] End the war in politics

Korean politics are more or less at a state of war. Skirmishes are not restricted to the frontline borders, but are ongoing at the National Assembly, the Grand National Party and the Democratic Party as well as Seoul Plaza. German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously said in his 1832 book “On War” that “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” Just as he pointed out then, it is difficult to differentiate between war and politics today.

The National Assembly chamber has long served as a battleground for ruling and opposition politicians. It has long lost its decorum and dignity after the impeachment of former President Roh Moo-hyun, routine occupations of the speaker’s podium and use of weaponry like sledgehammers and tear gas. The Geneva Conventions restrain inhumanities in war. And such regulations are also without question necessary in democratic politics - commonly called the art of compromise.

Compromise happens when contradicting parties endeavor to work toward the best possible solution to a seemingly impossible problem. The British Parliament was intentionally constructed to be small in size to facilitate dialogue. One cannot compromise if the conversation becomes loud.

But in our legislative chamber, shouts and yelling are the norm. Slanderous comments and accusations are also rampant. Veteran lawmakers joke that to be a politician one must first have the stomach to endure harsh words. But they neglected one important fact - that voters do not make their choices depending on the loudness of one’s voice or physical actions.

Parliamentary politics fundamentally should be based on debating. Parties debate to concoct policies and present them to the voters. But neither the ruling Grand National Party nor the main opposition Democratic Party pay any attention to this nuts-and-bolts procedure. They are too busy tending to their armies.

German political theorist Carl Schmitt in the 1930s argued that the essence of politics lie in the identification of “friend” and “enemy.” Just as ethics differentiate between good and evil, politics work upon distinction between friend and enemy. Struggle naturally becomes the means. Discussions and compromise have no room. Politics serve to obtain control, and the parties are instrumental as the armies.

Today’s Korean politics fit the description. Politicians call for change following the rise of software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo, but the rhetoric is no more than a political show in order to buy votes. Politics are now all about the struggle for the majority of seats through legislative elections. The GNP and DP are engrossed in manning their armies for this purpose.

In the past political battlefields under the Kim Troika days - referring to political rivals Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil - there was a line that politicians refrained from crossing. Korea’s democratic politics came so far even under extreme regional factionalism because of such restraint.

But the line has been frequently violated and ignored in the post-Kim era. As a result, politics lacks even minimal decency. Political last resorts, like impeachment and occupation of the speaker’s podium, are frequently abused. Violence tantamount to an atomic bomb in politics and legislating has become commonplace. Civilians mimic politicians in street protests. A society that should be maintained with decorum, tolerance and peace is going in the opposite direction, led by illegality and violent protests.

State governance has hit a bottleneck due to the ongoing wars. The ruling party is backtracking in feuds, the main opposition is undergoing an identity crisis and the streets are clamoring with civilian protests.

Where have we gone wrong? The world is becoming more and more interwoven, yet our politics have returned to the feudal days under an all-or-nothing mindset. An end to the wars is not yet in sight, but the people are pained because of them. Voters will make politicians pay for their actions in the next election. Politicians should realize that what the voters want is democracy and politics of compromise - not war.


*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong
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