Reforming Korea’s democracy

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Reforming Korea’s democracy


Lee Hong-koo

The nation is troubled and politics is chaotic. When times are uncertain, we need to look back at the past and learn from history.

While many of the ordeals that Korea goes through today are uniquely Korean, we are not the only country to face crises. Democracy all over the world is confronting sweeping changes.

In the mid-1970s, the Eastern and Western blocs in Europe sought dialogue and negotiation to move past the Cold War. This thaw spread the “third wave of democracy” to end authoritarianism around the world.

Recently Spain’s King Juan Carlos, who prepared the transition to democracy for his country during the ’70s, voluntarily abdicated the throne on June 2 after 39 years in power.

People are concerned about whether the tide of democracy is ebbing. As a result of the Spanish Civil War, the Popular Front, the confrontation of the left and right, and the involvement of international pressures, dictator Francisco Franco chose Carlos as the heir to the throne. When Carlos became king in 1975, he prevented a coup to revert to the Francoist government and became a symbol of democracy.

The success of Spain’s democratization inspired Southern European countries and influenced Eastern Europe, led by Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, along with Nelson Mandela’s South Africa, Latin America and even South Korea in 1987.

Southern Europe used to be a leader in democratization, but its politics have suffered in the last few years. The abdication of King Carlos is a consequence. The sluggish progress of democratic politics in the 21st century reflects the limit of failing to find a breakthrough in the unexpected waves of history.

Firstly, in the globalization of the market, especially in the integration of economies, the democratic system lacks the capability to adapt to the discrepancy in the speed of economic changes and political changes, as well as more substantial differences.

Secondly, nationalism based on tradition and values has more explosive power than democracy, which is based on universal justice.

Thirdly, democratization gave back the power dominated by dictators to the citizens, but realizing popular sovereignty is still a challenge with no clear answers.

Korea is also struggling with the hardship of democracy. With six presidents elected through direct elections and two regime changes, Korea could be considered to have secured the continuity and stability of its democratic system.

However, most Koreans feel that the system established in 1987 is no longer valuable, and they support reform. In fact, in the 2012 presidential election, both the ruling and opposition parties prioritized economic democratization and the establishment of a welfare state. But Korean politics revealed its incompetency to productively link economic changes with political changes.

When it comes to nationalism that pressures democracy, the attitudes of Japan and China are more worrisome. In the end, Korea is at a juncture to set the focus of national development on the systemization of a productive democracy.

We must not forget that the democracy we pursue is representative democracy. The stable operation of democracy depends on who represents whom and how accountability is assumed.

When it is only obvious that the core of representation is the National Assembly, the old practice of a president-centered national administration becomes fixed, miring the nation in a democratic crisis. The results of the June 4 local elections do not reflect the “golden section” in the ruling and opposition party, but revealed the signature division in Korean society.

If we seek a glimpse of hope in a pathological situation, the divided political tendencies of our citizens could soil a two-party system. Citizens must be reminded that democracy cannot last without compromise. After all, we have to establish a new political system and culture to avoid two extremes and come up with a solution on middle ground.

Now is the time to break the abnormal Blue House-centered practice of letting the president decide everything and the political vice of prioritizing struggle over compromise. Now is the time to concentrate all our creative energy into building a new frame for democracy in Korea.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 23, Page 31

*The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

BY Lee Hong-koo
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