The start of a new eraWith all the heat and smoke of the presidential election finally over, we don’t feel much regret for the passing year or, for that matter, great hopes for the coming year. Yet all Koreans generally desire a brighter future for the nation and improvements in everybody’s daily lives in the New Year.
In 2013, Korean society will be faced with a historic juncture of evaluating five decades of industrialization and 25 years of democratization. We are flattered by the fact that countries around the world praise Korea as the most successful case of industrialization and democratization. In fact, we have accomplished considerable development - economically and politically - from the swamp of poverty that we inhabited 50 years ago and the suppressive authoritarian rule that controlled us 25 years ago.
But Korean people today have alarmingly low levels of satisfaction and expectations for the future, and a sense of uncertainty, betrayal, dissatisfaction and distrust is undeniably widespread. Korea has successfully joined the mainstream and center of world history. But domestically it finds itself in the middle of a serious crisis of division and distrust, and economic and social polarization of our community.
But we can still harbor new hopes after both the ruling and opposition candidates for the 18th presidential election came to similar diagnoses of the national crisis and reflected the national aspiration for reform and change. It is no coincidence that the ruling and opposition parties shared the same stance to transcend the limits and contradictions of Korean politics during the 25 years of experimenting with democratic politics and put a top priority on ending the deepening polarization of incomes and inadequate welfare policies for the nation.
In this presidential election, the voters had to endure a shallow discussion of foreign policy and inter-Korean issues due to the overwhelming emphasis on economic woes. The surprisingly high voter turnout of 76 percent not only reflects a national consensus on our economic hardship but also proves the maturity of the democratic citizenship that believes the driving force for reform and change ultimately comes from the people. Despite some intense offensives in the course of the campaign, the two candidates made us proud by agreeing on the politics of co-existence and harmony once the outcome of the vote was determined, once again illustrating how democracy has ripened in Korea.
This election will be remembered as a democratic exercise that had a tight focus on the pivotal issue of so-called economic democratization. However, we must not forget that integrating democracy and the market economy - the backbone of our nation - is not an easy job. In that sense, politicians and economic entities should bring their mutual wisdom together to try to realize the goal of Article 119, Clause 1 of the Constitution, which says, “The economic order of the Republic of Korea is based on a respect for the freedom and creative initiative of enterprises and individuals in economic affairs,” and Clause 2, which says, “The state may regulate and coordinate economic affairs in order to maintain the balanced growth and stability of the national economy, ensure proper distribution of income, prevent the domination of the market and the abuse of economic power, and democratize the economy through harmony among the economic agents.”
As the presidential campaigns underscored the Korean culture of sharing and highlighted its sense of community, political leaders may want to coordinate the existing conservative and liberal stances on unification and inter-Korean relations to a concerted direction. Allocation of new roles for the progressives and the conservatives to improve the inter-Korean relationship could be a catalysis for some dramatic outcomes.
If the conservative side is in charge of negotiations with the North to control and enhance mutual benefits, we may have faster results. We need to refer to the fact that it was the Republican administration of President Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger that achieved an epochal diplomatic relationship between the United States and China at the height of the cold war four decades ago.
On the other hand, we can expect more desirable results if the liberal camp plays a pivotal role in welfare and human rights concerns of the North Koreans. After all, we are standing at a juncture where new strategies based on creative ideas are needed for economic democratization as well as foreign affairs and unification policy. And new directions are only possible through talks and compromises between the conservatives and the progressives, and the ruling and the opposition parties.
We are already living in a competitive era of creativity. The key to opening a new age is how we utilize the creativity of the young generation as the core engine of national development.
The ruling and conservative camps should not be overconfident of the power of voters in their 50s and 60s, who contributed to the victory of the ruling party in the Dec. 19 election, and must not be reluctant to shift their efforts to the younger generation.
On the other hand, the opposition and liberal camps should keep in mind that their original stance is to be more future-oriented and bold in generational changes and must not remain under the influence of the crusty veterans who are bound by ideologies and grudges from the past. As we greet the morning of the New Year, we believe the drive for changes and reform will lead to a leadership of vitality and harmony.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Hong-koo