Farewell to ‘new politics’Ahn Cheol-soo was like a transfer student into politics. He was absorbed into the existing political order that he vowed to upend and improve.
He chose the leftist sphere, which was controlled by extreme leftists and pretend progressives. They tried to deny and condemn the achievements of Korea’s industrialization and democratization. In the leftist spectrum, the elite and progressives were pushed out as outsiders. With his banner of “new politics,” Ahn sneered at business-as-usual politics, but it defeated him and he dropped out, at least for now.
The unique characteristic of Ahn’s politics was ambiguity. That also applies to his historical perspective and ideology. After he dropped out of the presidential race, Ahn reportedly said, “I felt an ideological difference with Moon Jae-in.”
Ideology and historical perception demonstrate a leader’s resolution. A leader’s ideology is the core of his soul. That’s why an alliance of ideologies is an incredible phenomenon and needs to be explained very clearly to the public.
Ahn’s explanation, however, was never clear nor enough. He didn’t give a clear answer to the people as to why he is supporting Moon despite their ideological differences. Ahn merely said it was to stop the ruling Saenuri Party from winning another victory. It felt like an automatic reiteration of a deliberate ambiguity.
When he was running, Ahn visited the grave of Park Tae-joon as Dec. 13 marked the first anniversary of Park’s death. Park was the hero behind the legend of Posco, and Posco is one of the great symbols of Korea’s industrialization. The stage for the legend was erected by Park Chung Hee. In October 1992, Park Tae-joon stood in front of the late president Park’s grave and read a letter.
“I am standing here to give my humble report to Mr. President after spending 25 years to complete the grand history of Pohang Iron & Steel construction,” he read. “As I look back, it was a thorny path. Whenever I fell down, I was able to get up over and over again by remembering your tenacious belief that ‘steel-making is this country’s power,’ and thinking about your 13 visits to the construction site.”
Without Park Chung Hee, there is no Park Tae-joon legend.
Ahn also paid respects before the grave of Park Chung Hee. Moon, however, did not.
Paying a visit to a former president’s grave is a symbolic gesture of confronting history. It is an expression of a historical perspective of reconciliation or confrontation. Moon also talked about unity, but he failed to deliver it through action. Moon’s view of Korea’s modern history is focused more on the divisions.
Ahn’s historical view is different from that of Moon. Ahn, however, failed to give a clear, simple explanation of the difference. He didn’t talk about how he managed to overcome the disparity. We can only speculate about his shrewd calculations, secret agreements and the pressure put on him. Ahn avoided the dramatic, crucial moments. And the people’s distrust in politics grows from that kind of sneaky behavior.
Ahn’s political future is cloudy, and the Ahn Cheol-soo style “new politics” have already been exposed as a trick. Without any verification process, he entered politics as if it were his right. But that doesn’t mean verification has to be waived. This time, questions were raised about his purchase of a real estate property development right in Sadang in southern Seoul, his dubious housing contracts and alleged purchase of bonds with warrants lower than market prices. If those issues were raised at a confirmation hearing in the National Assembly, they would be more than enough to disqualify him from any post.
Ahn never gave a clear explanation of those issues. He called them “negative campaigning” and ignored them.
He never held a real press conference. He only addressed the press when the topics are limited and favorable to him. And the people’s desire for “new politics” made them accept Ahn’s unacceptable behavior as a candidate.
As the presidential election became tighter, vetting Ahn became harder because Moon’s campaign defended him. Ahn, therefore, managed to avoid scrutiny of his ethics. His life and the essence of his political philosophy, thus, remained largely unconfirmed.
The situation will change after the presidential election. He will face scrutiny regardless of whether Park Geun-hye or Moon wins. Ahn will likely review the idea of running in the legislative by-election in April. Questions about his qualifications will emerge once again.
Ahn is currently in the target range of the Roh Moo-hyun loyalists and the leftist group. He had to please them and earn their trust. Or else, he will face trouble in his electoral district. After migrating to the Democratic United Party, Sohn Hak-kyu suffered hardships; Han Gwang-ok, who recently joined the Saenuri Party, also suffered hardships. They suffered because they could not get along with their new comrades. In the leftist group, Ahn’s political journey won’t be easy.
A larger power can devour its prey whole. When turmoil comes, a larger power can act mysteriously and win the presidency. The challenge, compressed with politics of emotions, is extremely powerful.
A smaller power, however, is different. In a smaller power game, the politics of emotions is not effective. In contrast, vetting the candidate’s qualification will control the game. And we have seen many paradoxical precedents in the past.
Politics is unpredictable. Improving politics means improving its predictability. In advanced politics, ambiguity and opacity are reduced. Ahn’s new politics was a unique experience but it heightened the uncertainty of politics. That actually causes a regression of our politics. Removing ambiguity is the true new politics.
* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon