Ridding politics of regionalismFour major shifts have taken place in Korean politics over the past two decades. President Kim Young-sam created the first civilian government in the early 1990s, and President Kim Dae-jung transferred power for the first time from the conservatives to the liberals. He also became the first leader from the neglected Jeolla region. And finally, President Roh Moo-hyun brought forth a new generation of politicians. But there is still another major task at hand: tackling cronyism. Regionalism, in particular, has been a major obstacle to social unity.
Regionalism has influenced every government of late. Under the rule of Park Chung Hee, Chung Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo, power resided with those from the Daegu and North Gyeongsang areas. Under Kim Young-sam, it was the “Busan gang” running the show. And then it was payback time for the Jeolla forces under Kim Dae-jung.
The Busan and Jeolla factions waged a battle for control throughout the Roh Moo-hyun administration, and under Lee Myung-bak, the Gyeongsang faction allied with specific regions like Pohang. Regionalism has dominated in past administrations, playing a major role in key government appointments. It spread to the lower levels as well, influencing choices for minor posts.
This year’s three main presidential candidates - Park Geun-hye, Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo - all talk about social unity and political reform. Yet the key to unity and reform is the appointment system. No matter how much they promote unity and change, if appointments remain mired in cronyism, the government will inevitably be exploited. Since Park is from Daegu and Moon and Ahn are both from Busan, it is likely we will hear campaign references to the yeongnam, or southeastern folk, once again.
But the incoming president should be prudent and just in the appropriation of power. To prevent a disproportionate concentration, the next president should appoint the key posts of prime minister and chief presidential secretary based on talent and experience alone, rather than considering where they come from. People from Gyeonggi, Chuncheong, Gangwon and other regions should also be considered for prime minister.
Park will have to battle with the yeongnam stigma, and Moon and Ahn will also inevitably have to work harder to form a balanced coalition. This is not an easy fix, and overcoming regionalism may take a long time. But if a certain group dominates presidential appointments, a fair system of governance simply cannot be realized.
Regional politics must be dissolved and start anew. The government must be reassembled under a fair system that balances and spreads power, eliminating the crippling cronyism and regionalism in the process.