Reform to believe in
Affairs at home and abroad have turned strange. Although the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan’s colonial rule is approaching, we still feel the pressure of the superpowers.
We have achieved democratization and elected six presidents, but our domestic politics do not inspire faith and actually lead to insecurity. As a large proportion of the population feels economic strains, and many young men and women find it impossible to get a good job, President Park Geun-hye made a timely decision to concentrate on reviving the economy and delaying any discussion of constitutional amendments. But we must not forget it was political judgments that drove our economy into this situation and politics will be needed to eventually rescue our economy. Park seems to assign a higher priority to political reform than the economy or constitutional amendments.
A crisis for Korea’s democracy was foreseen a long time ago. In the 1960s, when modernization theory was promoted actively, Samuel Huntington stressed the importance of systemizing a political order that guarantees stable management of a country amid a flood of political theories on democratization.
In the 1970s, southern European countries such as Portugal, Spain and Greece managed to successfully end and come out of authoritarian regimes and introduce democracy. But the political and economic crisis in Greece illustrates the difficulty of combining the people’s ever-expanding democratic participation with stable state affairs. The Arab Spring, which passed like a summer shower, will be remembered as a merely temporary break from political regression.
In Korea, the democratic system was launched in 1987 after the people’s long and persistent struggle. Looking back at the 30-year process, the people’s political participation has significantly expanded. But the system of using this as a driving force for state affairs has hit its limits. Although we succeeded in democratization, signs of regression have been accumulating.
While the grand principle of democratic politics is “majority rule and minority rights,” the politics of Korea today fail to champion either of the two.
The biggest challenge for Korean society is the ever-deepening inequality and the wealth gap. Professor Chang Duk-jin of Seoul National University diagnosed the situation as “doubling” and he points out that inequality covers all areas.
The minority class in the labor market - non-regular contract workers - are under-represented in political terms and treated as outsiders in cultural terms. They have a weak voice in ideological terms and often become a subject of ridicule in symbolical terms, he said.
In addition to this doubling effect, we can reach the conclusion that political power - and political choice, for that matter - is what can control the problems of inequality such as generational conflicts stemming from a rapidly aging society.
Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, concluded in a recent publication that inequality is not unavoidable and it is the outcome of a choice. The inequality of the 20th century is a by-product of democracy, not capitalism. In the end, Stiglitz concluded, the key to resolving inequality must be found in political choices. That presents a positive possibility for Korea: Bold political reform will heighten the possibility of addressing and solving inequality. How to achieve such a reform for our democracy to make that political choice is a task we must resolve.
Park Myung-rim, a professor of political science at Yonsei University, says social and economic inequality is the outcome of the dehumanization and polarization of the authoritarian, industrial era. He presents the idea that ending the presidential system and bureaucratic state and building a parliamentary system should be the focus of political reform.
Professor Cho Yoon-je of Sogang University, however, provides a different view. Because Korea is obsessed with elections, lacks a strategy for the country’s future or a long-term vision for administration of state affairs, he says it is more important to push forward a constitutional amendment in order to strengthen the authority of the president and the executive branch and lengthen their terms rather than setting into stone a system of irresponsible politics.
The different views on politics and reform are proof that the people’s opinions vary on the cause of the crisis, its depth and the possible solutions.
To prevent Korea’s democracy from suffocating, structural political reform that goes beyond ending the cycle of corruption and cozy relations between politicians and businessmen is needed. Preparation for unification is a must, but the more urgent task is political reform. The president and the leaders of the ruling and opposition parties must immediately start the work of presenting a larger vision for developing the people’s wish into bold political reform.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 11, Page 35
*The author is a former prime minister and advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hong-koo