Conservatives must reformIn Korea, conservatism has faced a tough time. “Many youngsters regard conservatives as idiots,” a member of the ruling party’s emergency council said without reservation. After a debate, the ruling party decided to distance itself from conservatism in its new platform, stating that it respects “conservative values.” In advanced countries, the conservative are strong and active, but they are inactive in Korea. What has gone wrong?
In the early days of modern times, Korea’s conservatives had their center. There were dictatorships and corruption, but they made decisive contributions to the country’s development. Syngman Rhee built the country upon conservatism to fight against the radical progressives and communism. Free market economy, land reform and education as well as anti-communism and a Korea-U.S. alliance were the pillars. Park Chung Hee, a reformist, managed to achieve industrialization and modernization with his conservative development dictatorship. With economic development, he created the economic foundation for democratization. After a series of ups and downs during the rule of Chun Doo Hwan, the conservatives succeeded in winning the presidential election in 1988 with Roh Tae-woo’s victory.
After industrialization and democratization, the conservative forces should have led the advancement of the country. To this end, they needed strong ethics. But the conservative forces failed to meet the public’s expectations by agreeing with the political merger in 1990. The three parties’ merger in 1990 was a risky coalition. Two years before the merger, the people voted to give the opposition parties the majority in the National Assembly, but Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil decided to merge their parties. Although they said their alliance was to serve the same values, it was solely to achieve their goals and interests. They isolated the liberals, with the Gyeongsang and Chungcheong regions ganging up against the Jeolla region. The merger split the country ideologically and regionally.
The three parties’ merger soon revealed its true face. In a few years, the politicians from the Democratic Justice, Reunification Democratic and Democratic Republican parties all split. The Kim Young-sam administration was marred with corruption and incompetence. His son and close aides were jailed, and the country received a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. After the bitter failure of the conservatives, it was no accident that the liberal Kim Dae-jung administration took power.
After a decade of liberal rule, the conservatives once again had an opportunity with the presidential victory of Lee Myung-bak. But he failed to rebuild the conservative movement. Shocked by the candlelight protests over American beef imports, he hid under the banner of centrist pragmatism. And he was lost. He failed to reform and repeated the obsolete ways of governance of the Chun Doo Hwan, Roh Tae-woo and Kim Young-sam administrations. Even the corruption scandals involving family, relatives and aides were repeated. He was also unlucky as the country suffered from widening wealth polarization. Public sentiment worsened rapidly and the conservatives faced a crisis once again. Now they must reset. They must uphold the original conservative values while filling in the holes in their ethics.
The conservatives cannot make concessions in national identity and security, but must be flexible in other ideologies such as the economy, welfare and taxation. Ethical and fundamental yet compassionate conservatism is what we need, and it can be called “reformist conservatism.” For the tainted conservatives to be reborn, they must clean themselves up first to correct others’ wrongs.
The first step will be punishing the Lee administration. The conservative civic forces must hold hearings to grill Lee Sang-deuk, Choi See-joong and Park Hee-tae. They must lay bare what went wrong and present the findings before the people. The second step will be receiving pledges on ethics from presidential contenders Park Geun-hye, Chung Mong-joon and Kim Moon-soo. They must pledge that they will create watchdogs to monitor their families and aides while appointing talented people for various posts. The third step is to go into survival mode and defend conservative values. The reformist conservatives must fight against the inflammatory campaigns of the liberals and the progressives in the legislative and presidential elections. Conservatives must not just sit idle but stand up and raise their voices.
In advanced countries, conservatism is still alive because it reforms itself. The conservatives in Korea must reform. That’s the only way they will survive.