[Viewpoint] Needing a real liberal party in Korea

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[Viewpoint] Needing a real liberal party in Korea

As an American expatriate, I find 2012 already to be a politically incredible year on both sides of the Pacific.

In the U.S., we are witnessing the Republican Party disintegrate from its mature and sophisticated conservative political philosophy as its presidential candidates try to outdo each other on emotional social issues, posturing toward the far right of the American mainstream. Given the state of the economy, the Republicans should have an easy opportunity to recapture the White House. But most Americans believe Obama will be re-elected - partially due to a strong pro-Obama base, but largely because the Republicans are appearing to be out of touch with the majority of citizens.

On the Korean side of the Pacific, we see the progressive opposition parties potentially squandering an opportunity to regain power. Quite rightly, most Koreans are fed up with the cynical abuse of power by the corrupt conservatives. And yet, the mainstream electorate is becoming less inclined to support the opposition political parties as the progressives articulate their increasingly ridiculous political goals.

One may argue that there are no real Korean liberals. All politicians here are conservative nationalists once one looks past the facades. Korea’s conservatives are genuine conservatives, and as such, in their trade-dependent economy, they have been forced to truly to understand the rest of the world, if only for their cynical business purposes.

The liberal opposition is not actually liberal. Given that their leftist doctrines are largely, if often indirectly, linked to North Korea, they are not even leftist when one considers that the Pyongyang oligarchy is more Mafioso than Marxist-Leninist.

And as the old adage goes, assess people by what they do, not what they say. To date, South Korea sadly lacks a viable and consistent liberal party or movement that doesn’t turn its current agenda inside out depending whether they are in or out of power.

What South Korea has is mostly a collection of Honam-based reactionaries - contrarian to anything the Gyeongsang-based conservatives represent. Rather than constructively coming up with well thought out, genuine progressive or liberal alternatives, the contrarians are primarily against most initiatives of the conservatives as a matter of course. The progressives do come up with some interesting ideas, but their lack of discipline causes even worthwhile ideas to evaporate during ineffectual administration while neglecting what should be liberal administration during their times in office.

For example, when the so-called progressives where in power, they initiated the EU and U.S. free trade agreements and set in motion the building of South Korea’s first blue navy port in Jeju. Their leader, Han Myeong-sook, when serving as environment minister, passively observed the wholesale destruction of the nation’s largest wet lands estuary for highly questionable land reclamation.

True, conservative business and academic leaders had clamored for opening up the Korean markets for years, but it was the “liberal” President Roh Moo-hyun who reluctantly put into motion the free trade agreement negotiations. And it was on his watch that the South Korean government decided that South Korea needed a blue water naval base in Jeju.

Today, these self-fancying liberals can be counted to take loud and public stands in favor of the environment when they can hope to thwart any of the conservatives’ public works projects. This same group of political actors dreams up remarkably ridiculous arguments against clauses in the U.S. free trade agreement - but remains totally silent about the near-identical EU trade pact. And, of course, they are doing their futile best to stop construction of the Jeju’s small naval base now that the project has been put into motion.

To be fair, the problem has not been a lack of genuine liberal Korean thinkers. The old Korean Quaker intellectual, Ham Sok-hon, comes immediately to mind. But as he rigorously maintained, he was a failure in creating a viable political movement. Sadly, he was not engaging in false modesty.

While Teacher Ham would have in principle endorsed the opposition to the Jeju naval base, he also would not have allowed matters to reach the current state. He would have earlier stopped matters in the planning phase when his followers were in power. That is the real power of principled consistency - prevention at the outset rather than futile grandstanding later on.

Today, we have Ahn Cheol-soo, the software entrepreneur and SNU professor. Like Ham Sok-hon, he has been a light of hope for many young people of this generation. But, also like Ham, he has shied away from getting directly involved in the thick of politics for whatever reason.

Consequently, Korean politics essentially consists of a fairly consistent conservative agenda offset by a reactionary and too often contradictory, opportunistic opposition.

But things are changing. As the younger generations across the nation face remarkably low employment opportunities, they are discovering their parents’ blind affiliation by hometown region can be vindictive, bigoted and counterproductive. They are also realizing the conservatives and so-called liberals are not so ideologically apart but essentially locked horns in a mutually destructive struggle based essentially on “where” rather than “what.”

I look forward to a greater maturation of the South Korea’s democratization as the young eventually take power. But first the country’s true liberals need to get their hands dirty in the nation’s often sordid political process if such development is to substantially happen.

* The author is president of Soft Landing Consulting and is a Korea business development adviser to Odgers Berndtson (Japan).

by Tom Coyner
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