Political experiments hold risksAhn Cheol-soo is resigning from his chairman post on the board of AhnLab, which he founded, and from the dean’s office at a Seoul National University graduate school to run for president. I advised him to consider the next presidential race since he appeared to be unready this time around, with less than 90 days to election day.
Deep in my heart, I wished he wouldn’t even dip a toe in the political field. Ahn has already accomplished much, and he is devoted to another world and his role there would lead to better contributions to the good of the country. But he has arrived at a different conclusion. I advised him to see reality, but he chose to look beyond it. He said what we need is a new type of politics. He would be ushering them in.
Our politics have long been mired in the dichotomy of left and right, liberal and conservative. Dialogue and compromise has been rare. Hostility and confrontation prevail in our politics. The May 16 military coup in 1961, the Yushin constitutional amendment in 1972, and arrests and executions of democratic activists during President Park Chung Hee’s 18-year rule still haunt us and weigh heavily on the politics of today.
But those events are history, whether as follies or tragedies, and do not necessarily mean much in our everyday lives today. Previous governments have tried to reconcile with the past by restoring reputations and providing damages to victims of oppression under military regimes. Everyone says we should move beyond the past, but the ghosts return every election season. But that’s what the politicians say. They haven’t noticed that the Korean people have already moved on.
Our society is a recognized democracy. International rating agencies have placed Korea’s sovereign debt rating on par with those of Japan and China. The economy stands among the most advanced on the planet.
But the presidential candidate from the ruling conservative party felt compelled to bring the ghost of the past onto the central political stage. Park Geun-hye should have drawn clear lines between what needed to be criticized or apologized for or recognized and praised. She clearly lacked a historical awareness if she could not make that distinction.
Was it arrogance on Park’s part? The opposition candidate keeps harping on her roots in dictatorial days. His campaign strategy may be to capitalize on the deepening divide. During a ritual visit to the National Cemetery, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party paid homage only at the grave of liberal President Kim Dae-jung. He may be refusing to acknowledge presidents that do not fit into his ideological preferences.
Ahn Cheol-soo has entered politics to show a third way. He wants to sever ties with the outdated and unproductive traditions and practices of the Korean political world. The battle is on and the ruling and opposition parties have positioned themselves ruthlessly against one another.
Ahn stands in the middle of the battlefield posing as a peacemaker. He may be naive to believe the two warring sides would pay heed to his cries and lay down their guns. Unlike his opposition rival, he stopped at every tomb of past presidents, including Syngman Rhee’s and Park Chung Hee’s. In his platform, he stressed balance in growth and welfare as well as in security and peace. He is so right.
But the thing is how to translate decency and idealism into concrete action. Let’s assume some polls are right and he is elected president. All policies are formulated into laws through the parliamentary process. A president needs legislative support to realize his visions.
He would hardly get any push or encouragement from a legislature dominated by pro-Park and pro-Roh Moo-hyun representatives. Without any help from the legislature, he won’t be able to do anything. He will have to explain to the public how he plans to tackle this problem.
In the current political framework, he does not have a chance. In the press conference announcing his presidential bid, Ahn said he does not have any organization to back him, but at the same time, he does not owe anybody. He will have to find his answer from this nothingness and non-affiliation.
He could recruit talents from both the conservative and liberal fronts. He could seek a coalition with both the Park and Moon camps after the election. It would be a revolutionary political moment if Ahn gets agreement from his two rivals to cooperate in governance, whoever gets elected. With such a mindset, there is no reason why Ahn cannot join up with the conservative party. In fact, his policies are more in tune with the Saeunri Party’s.
Ahn, however, needs not seek a political marriage with any party before the election. Many support him because he promises to take the path not taken. It would be paradoxical to tie up with a mainstream political party while calling for new politics. He would end up doing evil if he delivers disillusionment rather than hope to the people by pairing off with a mainstream party to win the election.
Political structures and culture do not change overnight. One individual cannot accomplish that alone. The dirty waters of the political world cannot be drained away in one go. Ahn’s political experiment won’t be easy.
But he should not be discouraged after meeting resistance and failures. He should keep his feet firmly in politics and pursue his ideal. That was his promise to the people, and no matter how tough it may be, he must accept it as his destiny.
* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk