Exhaustion of civil society underway

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Exhaustion of civil society underway

When independent candidate Park Won-soon won the by-election for Seoul mayor in October 2011, SungKongHoe University professor Cho Hi-yeon (right in the photo) said, “His victory is a grand challenge and crisis to civil society.” He also warned, “The person who had been watching the government and the market has become the object of surveillance now. All forms of power can become corrupt, and that’s why we need civil society. The People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy will become the strictest watchdog of Mayor Park.” Both Park and Cho entered Seoul National University in 1975 and were founding members of the People’s Solidarity in 1994. Though they were longtime, like-minded friends, Cho did not celebrate his friend’s victory.

Three years later and professor Cho has been elected Seoul superintendant for education in the June 4 local elections. When he announced his candidacy, he said, “Education is at the center of the structural contradiction of our society.” In 2012, another People’s Solidarity founding member, Kim Ki-sik became a member of the National Assembly as a proportional representative for the Democratic Party. In 2000, Kim had led the campaign against unqualified and corrupt candidates with the Citizens’ Solidarity for General Election alongside Park Won-soon.

Just as Cho said, it is characteristic of Korea for elites of the civil movement to become political elites. And it is not necessarily a bad thing. Park’s refreshing participation in the Democratic Party primary in 2011 taught the political establishment a lot. While the Democratic Party transported its members by bus to the primary, Park’s camp did not join them. Then Seoul National University dean Ahn Cheol-soo, who had 50 percent support, yielded his candidacy and supported civil activist Park Won-soon, who had a 5 percent approval rating, and the decision made history. Without hurting his un-political image, Park could win the election as an independent, not as a Democratic Party member. Even after joining the opposition, Park kept a certain distance from the party. In the latest election, he rarely mentioned his party affiliation. He has also refrained from contacting Ahn Cheol-soo, to whom he is indebted politically.

As the elites of civil society made successful soft landings in politics, many more civil leaders have come to dream of a career in politics. Kim Ki-sik, the superb strategist and activist, and Cho Hi-yeon entered politics in order to realize their visions. But we still have one concern. Who will play the role of watchdog?

Four years ago, Cho said, “Park has left, but those who will remain in civil society should not be distracted. The capacity of civil society would be exhausted at this rate.”

Park Won-soon, Cho Hi-yeon and Kim Ki-sik have graduated from the most prestigious university, grew to become leaders in civil society, and have now become political elites. Upon their departures, is civil society still a field in which talented people aspire to work? If you are reluctant to answer, the exhaustion of civil society’s capacity could already be in progress.

*The author is a national news writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 9, Page 34

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