Politics must flow with public belief, committee chief argues
It was coincidental that the interview with Han Kwang-ok, the chairman of the Presidential Committee for National Cohesion, was scheduled this month. Just a day before the interview, the group co-hosted a forum to discuss policies to ease social conflicts in Korea.
But the forum, jointly held at the Press Center in central Seoul with the public foundation Happy World, faced protests from some civic group members before the attendants even started speaking, namely about the controversial Jeju Uprising on April 3, 1948.
The wide-scale civilian rebellion on Jeju Island against the brutal suppression of protests by the government, police and Army claimed more than 30,000 lives. But some conservatives still insist on labeling it as a Communist uprising.
The incident at the forum demonstrates how divided Korea still is and how crucial it is for the country with a polarized political ideology to have a body under the direct command of the president. Han, a 72-year-old former democratic activist and four-term lawmaker born in Jeonju, North Jeolla, said cohesion is “invisible, like the air. But its value shows up when conflict like the kind observed today is severely exposed.”
The interview took place at the committee chief’s office in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, nine days before his organization was set to throw a large-scale forum with the general public on Oct. 10 to tackle social conflict. The following are excerpts from the interview.
Q. What is the intended purpose of the forum [on Oct. 10]?
A. It will be held in four different regions, starting with the central region. We will extract topics related to cohesion through a poll and civilians from the region, and experts will discuss measures to boost cohesion. A management committee has been established to facilitate the discussion. A two-day forum in Seoul will wrap up the regional ones and the policies and visions from the last one will be made into a white book, eventually to be reflected in state affairs.
It’s been 15 months since the committee was launched. Can you name one major achievement?
It’s really hard to measure how cohesive society has become. We did set up a comprehensive plan that encompasses policies for national cohesion in July - just as we need a railroad for trains to travel. One tangible example was the eradication of a driver’s region of residence on his or her driver’s license and converting it into Arabic numerals, which went into effect on July 2. [The claim that specifying where a driver comes from could cause regionalism led the committee to overhaul the system.]
Not many know that the committee took the lead on that change.
We keep a channel that enables ordinary people to propose policy changes. We carried out [the reform] with the National Police Agency.
The premise for cohesion would be first to properly diagnose the conflict. What is the most serious conflict in this society?
When we conducted a poll in November, the conflict between social strata was cited as the most severe problem. Next came the conflict concerning ideology, followed by labor-management relations and region.
Why do you think the conflict among different social brackets and ideological conflicts is getting worse?
Conflicts erupting abruptly is evidence that Korea has undergone compressed growth. Koreans have been tolerating the same goal - economic growth over a short time - but now that their lives have been enhanced, the conflicts are spurting out at once.
President Park Geun-hye proposed establishing the committee. What motivated her to appoint you as the head?
It was Oct. 5, 2012, that I declared I would support her, when she was the presidential candidate. It’s funny that I, as a first-term lawmaker, made six proposals to President Chun Doo Hwan on Oct. 7, 1982, in protest against him - 10 years prior to my declaration. The proposals were: to have a direct presidential election system, a probe into the Gwangju Democratization Movement and the release of Kim Dae-jung, who was imprisoned at the time and later went on to become president.
Just 30 years after, I reversed my political ideology and came out to root for a presidential candidate on the opposite political side. That means I embodied national cohesion since the campaign period for the Park administration, which makes me the perfect candidate to lead the committee.
How is communication with the president going?
The senior presidential secretary for civil affairs is the administrator of the cohesion committee. There are channels all the time, and we have been communicating directly and indirectly.
You are a veteran politician, and Korean politics is perceived by many as being the origin of conflict. Why is parliamentary democracy regressing here?
I may be overstepping to say this, but we need politics that prioritize the people and the nation. Politicians are not supposed to go in the opposite direction from what the public thinks is right. They can narrow their political ideological differences when they think first about the people and the country. People would never condone a political group that would take chaos as its nutritive element. The group may have progressive or conservative tendencies, but it should never go to extremes. Only a reasonable intermediary party can offer stability and create a productive National Assembly.
It may not be easy to publicize what the committee does when you visit some events outside of Seoul.
Policies originate from these very scenes. I saw a store that sold boxes that contain pears from Naju, South Jeolla, and apples from Yeongju, North Gyeongsang. [There is an ancient rivalry between the residents of Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces.] The shop owner seemed more mature than the politicians.
BY PARK SEUNG-HEE [email@example.com]