Compromise: a virtue, not a viceI hate to break a pledge, or even postpone it slightly. Yet sometimes, needs must.
My last column considered the political pitfalls of President Park Geun-hye’s decision to have the state take charge of school history textbooks. But politics is only half the story. The pedagogical objections are no less compelling. I promised to discuss those in a separate article.
And I shall, dear reader, I shall. Only not this week. History is always with us, and the new history wars will run and run. So forgive me if I revert to that another time. Let’s not gorge or overdose on history, shall we? That can be dyspeptic fare: too much could cause indigestion.
Besides, one task of a columnist is to be topical. So this week, I am changing the subject, to focus on two recent events in Seoul. Both gladdened my heart - which raises another issue.
It’s easy for a commentator to be critical: this is part of the job. But praise is important, too, and giving credit when due. Right now, lawmakers and law officers, parliamentarians and protestors, citizens and courts all deserve bouquets for displaying a portfolio of virtues, not always prominent in Korea: moderation, compromise and restraint. On the streets and in the National Assembly alike, confrontation was avoided or overcome. These are two big wins.
Call me a pessimist, but after Nov. 14, I feared the worst. Bruising encounters between protestors and police in downtown Seoul, though hardly unfamiliar, are always dismaying. The injuries, the damage, the tough attitudes on both sides were sad to see. This is no way either to conduct politics, or indeed to promote the brand of Korea. The global media rarely report South Korea (unlike the North) - but spectacular riots always make watchable TV news fare. It’s such a shame when the sole scenes that much of the world ever sees from Seoul are negative.
And then, do it again? There was every reason to fear that Dec. 5 would bring a repeat. Protestors and the authorities alike were in no mood to back down. When the police said they would ban protests in Seoul as illegal, the stage seemed set for more pitched street battles.
Kudos then first to the Seoul Administrative Court for overturning the ban. This was the right decision, on the right grounds. As the court said: “Banning a rally is a last resort that can only be considered once all other options that do not restrict freedom of assembly are exhausted.”
Kudos second to both demonstrators and police for the restraint they showed on the day. From his bolt-hole in the Jogye Temple, Korean Confederation of Trade Unions leader Han Sang-gyun sent a video message urging the protestors to “march in a stately and resolute manner” - which they duly and peacefully did.
For their part, the police refrained this time from blocking off roads with barricades of buses. Here the law is murkier, or contested. In 2011, the Constitutional Court ruled that to ring Seoul Plaza with riot police buses violates citizens’ right to freedom of movement. But this August, the Seoul Central District Court upheld the police’s right to do this if public order is threatened - and provided non-demonstrators are allowed passage through the lines.
Wit was another good sign; as on the mask question. President Park and Kim Moo-sung don’t always see eye to eye - but now they want to see more than the eye. In a comparison which many found over-the-top, not to say outrageous, both have likened masked demonstrators to terrorist murderers. The Saenuri chairman used astonishingly violent language: “As the world has stepped forward to eradicate the Islamic State as they hide behind masks, we need to step forward to eradicate illegal violent demonstrators hidden behind masks.” Eradicate?
Naturally therefore, many demonstrators last Saturday and elsewhere donned masks. Some of these wittily resembled those worn in talchum, traditional masked dance dramas, which poke fun at bad rulers and other hypocrites. Humor is a more effective weapon than violence. Let’s hope that future demonstrations will draw inspiration from Dec. 5, not Nov. 14.
Meanwhile, a rare spirit of compromise was also afoot in Yeouido. The National Assembly is not exactly renowned for assembling all that often, much less working constructively. Often, it is paralyzed by deadlock or boycotts.
Or worse. Here is a sad fact, which also bears on Korea’s national brand image. Try searching on Google in English for “Korea parliament.” Get as far as “Korea parl,” and already the autocomplete suggests “Korea parliament fight.” Several videos come up, mainly from 2008-10. This is what the world knows about the ROK National Assembly: it’s a place for brawling.
You and I know better. In recent years, South Korea’s parliamentarians have largely managed to give up literally fighting. Yet metaphorically, warfare remains entrenched. Rarely does the Assembly function smoothly and normally. Time and again, countless bills languish because a dispute divides the ruling and opposition camps, so the latter resorts to obstruction or boycott.
In that context, it is heartening that for the second successive year, the Assembly has managed to approve next year’s budget on time. Well, almost. The legal deadline was Dec. 2, but prolonged interparty haggling meant that the bill’s passage in the small hours of Dec. 3 was technically 50 minutes late. Still, that is a big improvement on the decade prior to 2015, when the budget routinely went down to the wire on Dec. 31, often passing only in the final minutes of the old year, and at least once going even past that into the new one.
So one cheer for this. Not the proverbial three cheers, I’m afraid, for two reasons. The parties hadn’t in fact completed their deliberations or reached full agreement, but under a new law, the bill was automatically put to the vote - and the Saenuri Party’s majority ensured that it passed.
A second caveat is that much other business still remains unsettled, and the clock is ticking. The current parliamentary session ended on Wednesday. The ruling and opposition camps have agreed to hold an extraordinary National Assembly session to enact labor reforms by the end of 2015. But no date has yet been set, and the parties remain far apart on this contentious area.
Which will prevail in 2016? The spirit of Nov. 14: water cannons, pepper spray, bus barricades and street fighting? Or of Dec. 5: peaceful, playful protest? Korea has seen more than enough of the former over the years. May a new year turn over a new leaf, and try a new way forward.
*The author is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at the University of Leeds in the U.K.
by Aidan Foster-Carter