Waiting for another AhnShortly after Ahn Cheol-soo announced his decision to drop out from the race on Friday, a KakaoTalk message came from my college-age son. “Ahn Cheol-soo withdrew his candidacy,” he wrote. He normally doesn’t talk about politics with me, so the news must have shocked him. When I came home late at night, he started a conversation on the topic.
He said he was meeting with friends at Jongno in central Seoul and suddenly people started shouting “Ahn Cheol-soo! Ahn Cheol-soo!” so he went to see what was going on. He expected that the liberal candidacy merger was completed with Ahn’s victory, but was disappointed to learn Ahn had quit the race. As he turned, someone told him, “Now, you should vote for Moon Jae-in.”
Then my son told me, “But I don’t think Moon is the right choice,” and expressed his disappointment again. I am not sure if he will choose Park Geun-hye, the ruling Saenuri Party candidate, or Moon when he goes to the voting booth. But one thing is clear. It won’t be easy for Ahn supporters to get past their empty feeling.
The most unique aspect of the upcoming presidential election has been the Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon. Since the Seoul mayoral by-election last year, his popularity remained sky-high. Even now, the hottest topic in the political arena is whether or not Ahn will support Moon’s campaign. Did Ahn create this phenomenon? The answer is no.
Even without Ahn, we would have seen the same phenomenon. It is the expression of young people’s growing frustrations. Ahn listened to their complaints and comforted them. Whether Ahn stays in the race and no matter whom Korea’s youth support, we are destined to see another Ahn Cheol-soo unless there is a change in the business-as-usual politics.
The major reason for the Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon can be found in our tough livelihoods. According to data from Statistics Korea, the jobless rate for the overall population stood at 2.8 percent, while the figure for the those aged 15 to 29 is a whopping 6.9 percent, which means young people feel more anxious than any other age group.
Besides, the middle class of this country shrank from 74 percent to 67 percent since the 1997 foreign exchange crisis. The size of the poor class doubled. One-third of workers are temporary, so the problem of job security has not been resolved. The Gini coefficient, which indicates income inequality, worsened from 0.264 in 1997 to 0.313 last year.
Of course, wealth polarization is not a problem unique to Korea; it is a worldwide issue. For those suffering from economic hardships, it is natural to show rage toward the established social order and those with vested rights, particularly the politicians who have created the current system.
Capitalism has grown through crises. The first crisis was overcome with the warning of Karl Marx and threats of revolutions. During the process, protective measures for workers’ rights were created and welfare became an important issue. But as the economy became globalized and knowledge-based industry led development, a new crisis loomed. And we are in dire need of a new paradigm.
A child, when he is sick, cries. There is no question that a medical treatment should be given, but a doctor cannot just prescribe painkillers that the child wants. Hatred toward the rich and conglomerate-bashing may feel great for now, but we have to think about what comes next. Will that create jobs and reform the distribution of wealth? Without a big picture for our future, the sugar-coated pledges are nothing more than painkillers.
In the autumn of last year, I met with doctor-turned-investor Park Gyeong-cheol who went around the nation with Ahn to host “Youth Concert” talk shows. At the time, he said he would make Ahn a president. “The economy will face a deeper crisis during the next president’s term,” he said. “We cannot just keep the current system going. The country, however, will soon fall into a serious deficit if the Democratic United Party wins and accommodates all the demands of the liberals. Then, it will lose the next presidency, and the liberals won’t ever have a chance to run the country for the next 30 years. A trustworthy person must become the president and appeal to the people to share the pains and burdens.”
Park said it was important to revive the growth engine and create jobs and build a new paradigm to ease the wealth polarization. But he was nowhere to be seen once the presidential race kicked off.
Ahn became a phenomenon because of the people’s disappointments at the existing political parties that are responsible for creating the painful social structure. It was a demand for a turnaround. The existing political parties were more concerned with winning political power struggles than with serving the people, and winning the presidential election rather than serving the future interests of the country. Without a new vision, they just attacked each other. That’s why we have to open up a path for a third candidate, even if that means introducing the runoff system in the presidential election.
Politicians do not appear to have changed much, if at all, even after the Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon. They treated the candidacy merger as a power struggle. They even gave up on “the right thing to do” if they though that it might benefit their rivals. The Korea-United States free trade agreement and the Jeju naval base plan are good examples.
Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon is now waiting for anther Ahn Cheol-soo. If the next president can play the role, it will be Korea’s great good fortune.
* The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin-kook