Korea’s political paralysis

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Korea’s political paralysis

For the past five months, Korea’s democratic processes in the National Assembly have been paralyzed. Concerns have deepened that the so-called 1987 system’s effectiveness is reaching its limit and the aftershocks from the Sewol ferry disaster are driving Korean politics into a crisis of democracy.

The 1987 system started with the excitement of democratization, but we have to think coolly and rationally about why it has lost effectiveness as years have gone by. It is also especially strange that the man on the street is showing little alarm and not demanding a resolution of this extremely serious situation.

It has become an established understanding in the theory of political development that a successful democratization process that ends a dictatorship or authoritarian government does not automatically guarantee a democratic political system that will be immediately stable. We have seen that the Arab Spring in many parts of North Africa and the Middle East was nothing more than a short-lived dream.

Korea’s democratization is, by contrast, a success because political participation and press freedom are guaranteed, fair elections have become the norm and, most of all, the possibility of the military intervening in politics has disappeared.

The success of Korea’s democratization in 1987 was focused on the big change of having a president, elected by the people in a free vote, who runs the state on the basis of laws written by elected legislators. And yet, it failed to guarantee a political culture that could support a main principle of representative democracy: that the country will be governed by the majority while the rights of the minority will be protected.

A representative democracy with the legislature at the center requires long discussions, endless negotiations and compromises. Thus, it requires patience. In Korean political culture, where effectiveness and speed are considered virtues and a clear-cut showdown between two parties is favored, the complicated steps of coming to compromises on legislation were criticized as ineffective, unproductive and simply too slow.

Whenever things got bogged down, the people wished for a strong leader to cut the Gordian knot. Sometimes, they became nostalgic for outright dictatorships. At the same time, it became a tradition for the people to go out on the streets to decide the direction of our politics with physical protests, rather than waiting for the long and boring procedures of the legislature to bear fruit.

Although the people’s wavering commitment to democracy’s grand principle of majority rule with minority rights protected, the 1987 system operated rather smoothly during its first 15 years because four political leaders at the time - Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil - had balanced views on the relationship between the majority and the minority.

They all admitted that they were not supported by the majority of the people and they had a realistic grasp of the political principle that they needed compromises and alliances to win the support of the majority to run the country. They contributed greatly to the stability of Korea’s early days after democratization.

After the 2002 presidential election, however, the dynamics of instability, not stability, started to shake the basis of representative democracy in Korea. The principle of majority rule started to be ignored and it became a part of our everyday lives.

It became a new trend that politicians felt they could overcome an election defeat with a sense of strong determination - and organizational power to bring people on the streets. As a result, the majority party failed to feel pride and responsibility, while the minority parties were blinded by the fantasy that they actually represented the people more than the politicians who had earned the people’s votes.

The problem of Korean politics is constitutional at heart. The 1987 system needs major reform. And yet, why are we having no discussions on the kind of reforms that are obviously needed? Until now, discussions on constitutional amendments failed to go anywhere thanks to the indecisiveness of the Blue House and ruling parties. The Blue House probably does not want the center of the political discussion to shift to the National Assembly. At the same time, it probably felt sentimental about the attempt to “depoliticize politics and politicalize the administration,” which was tried 40 years ago.

We also wonder if the opposition camp is able to abandon its fighting style of politics since discussions on reform, including any constitutional amendments, require in-depth negotiations and the ability to get along and compromise.

It will be a historic moment to decide the future of the Korean politics if such reform is possible. The people are waiting for wise deliberations by the Blue House and the opposition parties.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily Staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 22, Page 39

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

by Lee Hong-koo
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