The only game in town
Stuff happens: the welfare dispute, calls for reforms of the National Intelligence Service, fluid inter-Korean relations. When everything turns chaotic around us, time seems to freeze. The Blue House, the political parties and the National Assembly seem to enjoy the chaos. The Blue House thinks it can reign over politics, and the parties seem to be doing their best to confuse the public rather than persuade them of any rights or wrongs. The National Assembly has barely functioned. Instead of being a stable center of our politics, it wobbles like a bowl of jelly.
One could argue that the Blue House has always reigned over politics. It may be an unavoidable phenomenon in a country that has adopted the presidential system. But its attitude seems more of a problem now. In the past, influential politicians or public sentiment supporting the opposition party could redirect the dominant hand to parliamentary politics. That resistance is absent today, and state affairs continue to be swayed by the words of the president. Skeptics think that the reign of the Blue House has become “the only game in town.”
The “only game in town” we originally hoped for was a free government system brought about through the process of democratization. To enable such a democracy, political entities must not deny the legitimacy of an elected government. Based on laws and procedures, political entities should resolve discord within an established system.
We still have a long way to go. The ideological confrontations of the past have eased, but we still hear slogans denying the legitimacy of our elected government, and street politics are about to emerge as a new game in town. After the bipartisan effort to pass the motion to arrest lawmaker Lee Seok-ki on charges of plotting an armed uprising against the state, the ruling and opposition parties have now returned to a state of war over pensions of senior citizens and NIS reform.
Why are we experiencing such continued chaos? Time seems to have stopped for the Blue House, the parties and the National Assembly. The Blue House is caught between overconfidence and embarrassing leaks of honesty. The resignation of Welfare Minister Chin Young reveals the internal disorder that accompanies overly domineering politics. Having put excessive emphasis on the need for honesty and principles, President Park Geun-hye must have felt embarrassed to apologize for her humiliating climb-down on senior citizen pensions, one of her core election promises. She had a hard time coming up with explanations of how the government would be irresponsible if it ignores fiscal realities and forged ahead with foolish election promises.
How about the opposition? It criticizes the climb-down on pensions as a “fraud against the citizens.” They prefer politics of the streets - meaning never-ending street protests - over dialogue. They need to learn the mistakes of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In 1995, he and the Republican majority didn’t pass a government budget bill, resulting in a shutdown of non-essential federal government offices during the Clinton administration. Americans got furious, and as a result, Clinton was re-elected in a landslide victory in 1996. Before the government shutdown, many people thought Clinton would be a one-term president.
The opposition needs to calculate the impact if they use the National Assembly Advancement Act to interfere with the passing of a budget or continue to struggle against the ruling party with street protests. But the opposition doesn’t seem to want to think about these issues.
What should we do now? The only way forward is to make a constructive breakthrough via compromise. A breakthrough can only be possible if President Park shows a willingness to talk and compromise with the opposition party. She should not be obsessed with rightness. And she also needs to review her administrative system.
The Park administration has outstanding legal professionals and economists. They are knowledgeable and competent, but they seem to be caught up with numbers and theories. In the past, politics used to be swayed by ideologies, and money and special interests swayed politics in the last administration. Now it has become a game of numbers and theories. I doubt these specialists have the will or ability to read the minds of the people.
What we want now is neither street politics nor domineering politics from on high. We wish for politics in which an established democracy of rules and checks and balances becomes the “only game in town.” But such a democracy is not possible unless the Blue House, the parties and the National Assembly rediscover the beauty of compromise.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is an emeritus professor of political science at Seoul National University.
by Chang Dal-joong