[Viewpoint] Taking honor seriouslyHistory is repeating itself. Since the democratic presidential election system was first introduced in 1987, all five governments suffered plunging approval ratings, severe intra-party strife and feuds, and dysfunctional governance during the final stages of their terms.
Our governance structure cannot work efficiently because during a five-year term. The president actually wields full power for no more than three years. From the fourth year, politicians and the press are entirely preoccupied with the power games of the next presidential election. Populism and controversy decide policies instead of feasibility and efficiency.
We cannot simply blame the president and politicians for such a situation. Lawmakers are among the elite of our society. We are all to be blamed if we chose the wrong presidents and legislators over the last five presidencies. Or there must be a problem in our system or the culture that kept the system going.
We should take time to examine our problems and discuss some potential solutions. But that’s not happening: The political and media focus is entirely on next year’s legislative and presidential elections. During the early stage of the incumbent administration, various groups, including the legislature, studied plans to revise the Constitution. We hear nothing about those plans now. The public can criticize the politicians and the president, but we too have been neglectful in our duty to democracy.
We take pride in the fact that we have succeeded in industrialization and democratization. But have we really? We made tangible strides in industrialization, but not as much in democracy. During industrialization, we imported the technology and manufacturing methods of the Western world to match their capabilities. Manufacturing processes can be imitated and need not be in concordance with a society’s philosophy and traditions.
A political system, however, is different from a manufacturing line. We embraced and mimicked the Western-style representative democracy system, even if it was hard to combine with the country’s premodern traditions and culture of 5,000 years. Former Prime Minister Kang Young-hoon in his memoir said the import of a legislative system was like grafting a pine tree shoot onto a bamboo.
There were calls for a Korean- style democratic system in the 1960s, but due to a lack of consensus, dictatorial military rule came in and lasted until the 1980s. Even after the democratic movement in 1987, we did not deeply contemplate what kind of democracy we wanted. Efforts toward a thoughtful evaluation were rare. We regarded democracy as a system ensuring greater individual freedom and rights but ignored the duties it also requires.
A democracy cannot work properly if restraint and fairness are absent in the media and in public discussions. The press in Western societies is often criticized for excessiveness and unfairness, but it’s not nearly as bad as ours. Westerners may have learned to respect their opponents because of the tradition of the duel in which one must stake one’s life if one wants to indulge in defamatory actions or comments.
Examples are plentiful. American President Abraham Lincoln and author Ernest Hemingway risked their lives in duels after writing slanderous articles. President Andrew Jackson suffered a wound from a shot in a celebrated duel. Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton died in a duel with political rival Aaron Burr. The medieval code of chivalry to maintain one’s honor continued until the 19th century.
If duels were acceptable in Korean society, there would have been a lot of deaths of journalists and politicians. Democracy evolved in the Western world through customs of restraint and responsibility. We adopted the system minus the duties and the dedication to order.
Political parties are pillars upholding our representative democracy. They must stand firm on foundations of value and pursue policies that signify the hopes of the people in order to push forward a nation without bloody revolution. We cannot expect a mature democracy from parties that dissolve before an election because their approval ratings are down.
The present is as important as the future. The administration and legislature must not waste their remaining time. The media should refrain from playing up comments of potential presidential candidates and fanning political fires. It should encourage debate to improve state governance and our politics.
The public should also be strict with a press tempted to be sensational. At the end of the day, the future of the media and our politicians depends on what we are willing to accept.
*The writer is a professor of economics at Sogang University.
By Cho Yoon-jae