A new political mapWho is not frustrated? Our much-lauded accomplishments in industrialization and democratization seem to have hit a bottleneck. A quarter of a century has passed since we rebooted our political system and returned to democracy. But it’s not going too far to say that most people in this land are still doubtful of the progress of our political system and even its basic direction.
What went wrong?
The democracy movement of 1987 successfully closed the chapter on Korea’s authoritarian military regimes. However, few could be certain how a somewhat hastily organized democratic political system cobbled together without strategic thinking or a visionary road map would turn out. Indeed, we cannot rightly declare that the 19th National Assembly of 2013 is better at practicing representative democracy than the 13th Assembly, the first legislature established under the amended Constitution and electoral systems in 1988.
Of course, we are not alone on the globe fumbling and stumbling through the many problems that come with a democratic system. The Middle East is in a parlous state after the Arab Spring was swept along by wild desert winds. Spain and Greece are undergoing serious political and economic chaos despite longer histories of democratic systems than ours. Even the American political system, which has long been a role model for modern democratic systems, is now in a terrible muddle, which raises serious questions about the efficacy and sustainability of democracies.
Yet Americans can be relatively calm about their political crisis - a government shutdown and a possible debt default due to a showdown between the administration and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives - because they have faith that politicians in Washington will ultimately play by the rules according to the constitutional order. Otherwise, they will be subject to voters’ displeasure in the next elections.
To our embarrassment, we receive compliments from abroad that our political experiment over the last 25 years has been an exemplary case of democratization because the politics of compromise with respect to the Constitution took root in the early democratic governments under Presidents Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung.
Roh was elected with the lowest-ever support rate in our direct election history - 36 percent - and inevitably had to compromise with a majority opposition in order to successfully govern, helping to set the fledgling democracy off to a smooth start. Kim Young-sam was able to attain power by merging with two rival conservative parties. Kim Dae-jung finally won the presidency after several attempts by joining hands with his former political opponent Kim Jong-pil. The two Kims led governance through the kind of compromise licensed by the Constitution. Both were possible thanks to middleman Kim Jong-pil. The three Kims’ politics, therefore, contributed to the establishment of modern Korean democracy.
After the turning point of the 2002 presidential election, all aspects of the Korean community - politics, the economy, society and ideology - became more fractured and polarized than before. Widening income disparity developed as the economy got stuck in the middle-income trap of $20,000 per capita, triggering social insecurity and even a revival of anti-class and anti-imperialist sentiments.
In the meantime, some political actors lost all common sense about North Korean totalitarianism, leading to erratic and radical political behavior. Political parties and leaders fared poorly in defending the hard-won 1987 democratic system from various challenges. The latest fallout are scandals involving Lee Seok-ki, a left-wing splinter party member charged with insurrection, the National Intelligence Service accused of organizing a slander campaign against the liberal presidential candidate last year, and the leaks of confidential comments made during the 2007 inter-Korean summit.
In order to put Korean politics back on track, we cannot rest on legislative reforms like the National Assembly Advancement Act. The ruling and opposition parties should not only carry out inner reforms but also join hands to draw up an entirely new political landscape, which demands a visionary leadership of integration and negotiation. The president and the ruling party must stake their political lives on a solemn promise to cut off political interference and shady connections with the state intelligence agency and move more to the center from the right corner of the ideological axis, even at the risk of losing support from ultra-conservative forces.
The opposition, which has been proud of its legacy as defenders of democracy, must sever its ties with extreme anti-government forces that undermine the spirit and order of the Constitution and clarify its position on North Korea. It should also move more to the center from the left side of the ideological spectrum to re-establish itself as a party ready to take power in the next election.
The sixth president and administration since the 1987 democratic revolution are in their first year. Various challenges darken the outlook for Korean democracy and politics. The ruling and opposition parties must work together to create a new political map to help the country return to a solid track of 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