Going beyond regional autonomy“A part of the country that is not close to the capital city or an organization controlled by the central government” is the definition of “region” in the dictionary published by the National Institute of the Korean Language. In terms of space, it means a rural area far away from Seoul. In terms of territory, it means an administrative area controlled by the central government. Because the word has the nuance of an area being ruled, it seems to have little to do with the word “autonomy.” But the two words are often put together, and the term “regional autonomy” is perceived differently than its original concept. We often think about the central government’s control when we encounter the term.
Oct. 29 was designated as the Day of Regional Autonomy, and it was celebrated for the first time this year. A commemoration event was hosted by the Ministry of Security and Public Administration, which is part of the central government. The host was neither the residents themselves nor the regional legislative councils or regional autonomous governments. The event showed the reality of our regional autonomy.
Of course, regulations governing various anniversaries and commemoration days were established and executed by the government, so there were no flaws in the procedures. But it was the Day of Regional Autonomy, and it didn’t look good for the central government to play the role of the host. It seemed like a Children’s Day event that adults planned for the kids.
The power of language is not to be underestimated. Many misunderstand that Seoul means the center while the rest of the country is filled with regions where we talk about regional autonomy. It is, however, not a concept about space or an area. Regional governments are responsible for handling tasks that are directly related to the lives of local residents, which is different from the central government’s role of running the nation. Seoul is a region, and Seoulites are also residents of the region. To this end, it actually feels more correct to call the regional autonomy “residents’ autonomy.”
Although regional autonomy is a matter for every citizen, there seems to be no strong effort or will to make improvements. Regional governments are complaining about budget shortfalls, while the central government is criticizing the regional governments’ lack of abilities. In the meantime, they fail to draw a clear line on what they can do better and how much money they can actually spend.
Local elections will take place next year, but the promises of the ruling and opposition parties to not field candidates in various local elections are about to be broken. Perhaps it is linked to the privileges of lawmakers. Political parties worry that they will suffer greatly in the next general election if they let go of the right to field candidates for local elections. But the public is already supporting the idea of ruling out their candidates because they have already witnessed so many ill aftermaths, such as corrupt nominations, collusion among local powers and the regional politicians’ vassalage to the central party.
The direct election system of the heads of the education offices is also an issue that cannot be left alone anymore. Although political parties are barred from fielding candidates to maintain the political neutrality of education, the reality is the complete opposite.
This is not merely selecting a class president at school. It is a large-scale election, and the candidates are destined to be politicians. Voters all know which candidate is related to which party. During the campaign, they all used logos and symbols similar to those of their affiliated political parties.
And it is an expensive election. A candidate reported that he spent 3 billion won ($2.83 million) for the campaign. A report showed that the average debt for a candidate after the election was finished was 460 million won.
How can the education professionals pay for such expensive bills? Eventually, many heads of the education offices ended up in prison for money matters. It is, therefore, convincing that the education office head should be the running mate of a mayor or a provincial governor.
The French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville understood “township” as the basis of American democracy. “Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it,” he wrote.
Although regional autonomy is not such a clear-cut term for us, it is a critical tool for the separation of powers in a democracy. The past administrations all made a fuss about handing over authorities to regional governments and revising the system, but none actually made a dramatic change in the basic structure.
The time has come for every individual to state, “This is actually my business.” Those living in Seoul - but mistakenly believe they are living at the center - must particularly take matters into their own hands. Let’s do something more than celebrate the Day of Regional Autonomy.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nahm Yoon-ho