[Viewpoint] Exposure can boomerang

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[Viewpoint] Exposure can boomerang

An election is all about unexpectedness. Elections are frequently rocked by unforeseen events, and that unpredictability is an intrinsic attribute of politics. It also works as a charm to attract or repel voters. In Korea, elections are similar to amateur soccer games between neighbors. Offensives don’t necessarily guarantee goals, while dumb mistakes in defense often allow the other side to score. A twist in an election is often due to a rival’s mistake; that’s the comical side of it.

The Democratic United Party’s candidate Kim Yong-min’s outrageous remarks from the past were revealed at a late point in the campaign. The Internet podcast that he co-hosted was a parade of low jokes: “Tissues used after masturbation must not be used in landfills,” he said, for example. And that was but one of a cascade of dirty jokes and sexist remarks.

Kim proposed a way to prevent conservative senior citizens from joining protests at City Hall against liberal policies. All that was needed, Kim said, was the removal of all escalators and elevators from the City Hall subway station. Insulting senior citizens is one easy way to raise the heat in an election campaign. Before the legislative election of 2004, Chung Dong-young, who was the head of the then-ruling party, faced a bitter backlash for insulting the elderly.

Back then, the Grand National Party (now the Saenuri Party), was in a serious crisis in the aftermath of its failed attempt to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun. Chung’s remarks, however, allowed it a critical opportunity. Voters in their 60s and 70s are not passive targets. They graduated from the School of Hard Knocks that is Korea’s recent past. The growth of Korea is their pride. Kim’s sophomoric jokes ridicule the Greatest Generation.

In the Internet podcast “Naneun Ggomsuda” (“I’m a Petty-Minded Creep”), Kim pulled no punches in making fun of business-as-usual politics. The show gives like-minded listeners the vicarious satisfaction of a vicious assault. Some love it. But Kim decided to join business-as-usual politics. In return for giving authority, politics require responsibility and some dignity. Kim’s remarks were made seven and eight years ago, but the political game has the memory of an elephant.

Kim passed the nomination process and inherited the constituency of his podcast co-host Chung Bong-ju, who is in jail. But there is no sign that he has decided to give up his raunchy humor or foul language. He is the star of a show and thrives on exposure, the basic feature of an election. As election day approaches, voters react to whether a candidate is up to the job. Kim got the exposure he craves and is seeing it boomerang on him.

The controversy surrounding Kim is simple yet sensational. Famous mentors who support Kim are also being pulled into the controversy. Seoul National University Professor Cho Kuk once said Kim is “the candidate of our time,” while the celebrated author Gong Ji-young called him a trustworthy man that she wanted as her son-in-law. Their remarks have increased the boomerang effect.

An election is a collective event and the liberals’ support of Kim continued. Lee Jung-hee, a co-chairwoman of the Unified Progressive Party, stepped up, saying Kim could change his ways. “If he sees the problems correctly and changes himself, I trust Kim Yong-min,” she said. Her argument is that she doesn’t care what he did in the past as long as he changes. If that’s true, then no party has a candidate who should be criticized, because they can always claim they will change in the future.

Lee’s approach is the lame logic of simply picking a side. She blindly tried to defend her camp. In a recent lecture at the Chonnam National University, Seoul National University Professor Ahn Cheol-soo advised students to vote wisely. “First, it seems to be right to choose people who think of national interests first, not their party’s ideological basis,” he said.

The liberal alliance is trying to recruit Ahn to their side. They’d like him to run for president on their ticket in December. Ahn’s philosophy, however, is different from Lee’s. It is interesting to see how their different approaches clash in the election.

Kim is running in Seoul’s Nowon A District, a stronghold of the Democrats. The controversy surrounding Kim is definitely impacting the neck-and-neck races in the capital region. The DUP is having to walk on a wobbly tightrope. It wants fans of “Naneun Ggomsuda” to feel sympathy and even outrage over attacks on Kim’s jokes. The conservatives’ harsh offensive can trigger a sense of crisis among liberal voters and allow them to unite. That’s why veteran campaigners have a hard time calibrating the exact strength of their offensives.

The DUP has focused its energy on accusing the Lee Myung-bak administration of having conducted illegal spying on critics and political rivals. But its first exposure was poorly orchestrated, as it accidentally showed the date of the documents and allowed the Blue House and the Saenuri Party to strike back.

Now, the case is in chaos as the spying activities of both the Lee and Roh Moo-hyun administrations were mixed together. When an exposure loses the feeling of a simple truth, it loses much of its destructive power. The DUP tried to streamline its offense by focusing on the Lee government’s spying on VIPs. But the controversy over Kim’s foul jokes appears to be strong enough to overwhelm all other issues.

Voters are getting too much information now. In the past, information was scarce and difficult to judge. Today, there is a flood of information, and it actually has become even more difficult to judge. That is the irony of having too much information. In addition, truth and falsehoods are all mixed together, and there is no clear line to define malicious propaganda. In this election, policy pledges have gone AWOL. The competition between the ruling and opposition parties to beef up welfare spending has already pleased the voters.

The voter has a difficult decision to make. An election requires a voter to make an individual stand. Then he or she needs the information to make a clear choice. And voters also need to have confidence in making the right choice. The starting point is making a decision to rise to action.

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Bo-gyoon
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