[Viewpoint] A country of roaring wind - againEthnic Polish writer and ethnologist Waclaw Sieroszewski who travelled the Korean Peninsula in the winter of 1903 as a part of the Russian Geographical Society’s year-long expedition to study the people of Far East described the land as a country of roaring wind. The relentless chilly wind whipping the coastal cliffs and swirling mountain tops could have been impressive to foreign eyes even coming from Siberia. Stone-roofed cottages and farmhouses nevertheless dotted the ridges and cliffs and withstood the wind. Later in the year, Joseon was swept into the Russia-Japan war and the dynasty’s governance fell to the mercy of the Japanese empire.
We paid a dear price for hostile foreign wind during the last century. Ideological schisms remained during the 20th century. Today’s tension between conservatives and liberals is also a result. The European continent also underwent a contest between the right and left, but because Europeans are mature in politics, the contest resorted in dialogue and compromise.
Yet the endless conflict in our political parties suggests politicians here may be of a different species. It is awesome how evolution theory fails to work in different ways. The leading liberal camp Democratic Unity Party is singing the same old marching song - dismantle the chaebol economy, nullify the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement and expand the welfare system.
The shrill tone of the liberals is reminiscent of the revolutionary democracy activists in the 1980s. It is unclear whether to pin them as neo-liberalists or conventional liberalists for referring to the outdated prescription to topple the ruling power. But the language they are using in 2012 is from the terrifying military age - abolishment, rebellion and impeachment.
The conservatives are responding with a humbling tune of self-retrospection of past corruption and foul play. It is a cliche for men who have committed misdeeds to withdraw to the back and let their better female company step in and clean up the mess. No matter how many apologies they make and how often they change their party name, they will remain the old guard if they do not reinvent themselves thoroughly. They have so far shown themselves no more than domineering and fault-finding. We can hardly expect a good match between outdated liberals and ignorant conservatives.
Extreme opposites are readying for a full collision. A country’s economy and welfare system can only develop once two differing political parties narrow their ideological disagreements. The economy is mired in a stalemate of $20,000 per capita income and widening low-income class because the conservatives and liberals are shouting at each other from the pole’s ends of the ideological axis. When the new government comes in, the first thing it does is to overthrow the past policies and start anew. The building and dismantling repeats every five years.
What the liberals demand is to close the market and make ourselves self-sufficient. But would that make irregular jobs permanent and create decent paying jobs for every young person? Have the conservatives kept their promise that when markets are open wide and chaebols are at the forefront, self-employed businesses and small and midsized companies will get rich? The answer is no to both. When the two solutions are combined to one, or when market opening and protection for the vulnerable are both assured, we can expect some kind of positive outcome.
Can cheaper welfare benefits be financed fully from taxing the rich more? No, it would cost ordinary tax-payers about 100,000 won ($85) a month extra. We are frustrated at both the liberals that keep mum on North Korea’s deadly attacks and the conservatives that refuse any dialogue before it receives an apology. Civilians differ in ideological opinions depending on the issue. Asking people to take a side and brainwashing them can cut off communication.
The Grand National Party is right to suggest erasing its “conservative” identity. The Democratic Unity Party also should consider yielding its “liberal” trademark. They do not need to relinquish their identities, but just as our economic concentration has shifted to IT, the right-and-left contentious politicking should also change according to the times.
Korean political parties no longer represent a certain class, generation or region. The particular needs of the regional constituencies and sentiment affect party preferences.
Residents of Gangwon abandoned the conservative party due to a long-held feeling of neglect from central government and so did Chungcheong people out of resentment from the government’s reversal of the policy on Sejong City.
Ideological reasoning alone cannot solve the complicated problems of the country now entering social and economic democratization and past the political democratization stage. This land once again is experiencing roaring wind.
*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The author is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
By Song Ho-keun