Revolt isn’t reformWith the dog days of summer finally gone, a breeze has arrived ahead of the Chuseok holiday, hopefully cooling off our overheated political sphere. The people of this country have been startled, annoyed and possibly even scared by the bombshell news that Lee Seok-ki of the Unified Progressive Party had plotted an armed uprising with some of his far-left activists.
From Lee’s track record on pro-North Korean activities and comments, we should have seen it coming, and it has certainly stirred the pot in terms of discussion. But we should also take this opportunity to contemplate how this kind of event could shape the future path of our country.
In any country, there are groups resisting or even fighting the ruling regime, meaning the government. But it is important to distinguish whether that battle is being pursued in a legally acceptable form that pushes for a new direction while honoring the legitimacy of the government and the constitutional order. If the battle does not fall within those confines, the rebels will be revolutionary forces out to overthrow a regime because they fundamentally deny the legitimacy of the nation, its constitution and the leaders governing under that charter. A democratic state must respond differently to forces for reform and forces of rebellion.
The more advanced and democratic a state is, the tougher it is to protect society from forces that disregard legal and fair procedures and attempt to seize power through revolution schemes, which pose an immediate threat to democratic systems. It is natural for a democratic society to take protective measures in today’s world, where extreme anti-regime sentiments or anti-government movements can turn into a pathological malaise resembling a religious cult. At the same time, however, a democratic political system maintains its health through a competitive mechanism that allows the release of anti-incumbent sentiment and guarantees political participation for progressive forces.
Korea’s tumultuous modern history has been marked by upheavals that inevitably incubated and bred anti-regime sentiment. Resentment and revolt against the invasion and colonial rule of Japan that replaced a regressive and incompetent feudal system of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) led to a national independence movement and resistance against imperialism.
Korea’s independence movement was caught up in the global whirl of ideological conflict between the left-wing ideology of Marxism-Leninism and the right-wing ideology of free democracies. Under such circumstances, political motives based on ideology and dogma fueled political aggressiveness and even violence. The political chaos under U.S. military rule following our liberation and the subsequent establishment of separate states on the southern and northern sides of the Korean Peninsula eventually led to a brutal war.
The 1950-53 Korean War left many dead and victims on both side of the 38th parallel. It also left behind much bitterness and anti-regime sentiment.
Modernization was driven by a military dictatorship and it succeeded in transforming the war-torn, poor country into an industrialized nation. But we cannot forget how hard the fight was for a return to direct presidential elections. Nor can we forget that the democracy movement was, in essence, an anti-regime movement and a successful one. What we clearly can say 26 years later today is that the democracy movement and its success in 1987 was a progressive reform drive to restore the country’s democratic constitution. But it was never a revolutionary attempt to overthrow the state. But swept up in the rapture of accomplishing democratization, Koreans failed to stop to seriously deliberate and debate on how to address future antagonistic forces that might undermine the hard-won democratic constitution of 1987.
Underground opposition activities got traction through resentment and skepticism of capitalism and the free market system due to worsening income disparities following the global financial meltdown in 2008 and the subsequent economic slowdown. Furthermore, North Korea’s high-stakes nuclear threat heightened awareness of the possibility of war. Lee ’s conspiracy and insurrection scandal has raised serious doubts about the viability of South Korea’s security and even its democratic political system. The inevitable question - and the need to come up with an answer - may have arrived at just the right time.
The answer should be clear - and simple - for our society. Illegal revolutionary activities and an attempt to overthrow our democratic national system must be addressed sternly, according to the law. The authority of the law is legitimate when the basic rights of all people are defended fairly and equally.
The people have been watching closely. The ruling forces have not fully honored the principle of preventing the nation’s intelligence agency from interfering with domestic politics. The opposition also has not gotten rid of the bad apples in its own ranks.
Society no longer can put off the historical task of upgrading its democratic system for the sake of national stability and progress.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hong-koo