Democratization, part II
The world was in a state of chaos last year and we were fortunate to have managed to stay afloat. The dark clouds of this crisis — of democracy and the recession in the market economy — covered the global community. The Middle East is reeling from religious extremism and ethnic conflict, while Europe has dealt with an influx of refugees and growing terror threats. By comparison, Asia is a relatively peaceful neighbor.
The United States and China are engaged in a renewed competition in the Asia Pacific, while Korea, China and Japan are tied down by historical disputes. The 10 member-countries in Asean agreed at the end of last year to expand the association to an economic community. Those relations are advancing forward in a peaceful and complementary direction in the spirit of competition and cooperation. We hope North Korea will make an effort, too, to join global and regional trends.
Korea can be credited for successfully advancing peaceful diplomacy. President Park Geun-hye’s diplomatic activities last year can be praised for their pragmatism and symbolic significance. The personal relationships among world leaders are key during talks. Park met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington following a delay due to the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome. She also visited China to attend Beijing’s military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of Victory Day despite the political burden and held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. She held her first summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Korea-China-Japan trilateral summit in Seoul. All these activities largely contributed to stimulating multilateral cooperative relations for peace and prosperity in the region as well as productive bilateral ties.
Korea’s global status is sound and our prospects not so gloomy in terms of improving inter-Korean relations and pushing forward a peaceful unification strategy. The most serious national challenge for us is, in fact, economic democratization — stimulating growth while reducing the ever-widening wealth gap and social inequality. The presidential New Year’s address stressed that four major reforms must be implemented to create a strong basis for economic growth over the next 30 years. But the problem is what to do about political reforms — a challenge bigger than an economic overhaul.
At the end of the Cold War era, the first democratic changes were aimed at introducing a direct presidential election and a constitutional amendment to forbid re-election. In 1987, when Korea held its first free election, public political participation was the focus over government efficiency. When Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung — both leaders in the democracy movement — were elected president in succession, the change in administration was interpreted as a successful example of peaceful democratization.
And yet, the serious lack of the systemization of representative politics through political parties and in the National Assembly — as well as the extreme wealth and social gaps due to rapid economic growth — has led to a nationwide sense of crisis. It was, therefore, natural and timely that economic democracy became an unavoidable national mission for both the ruling and opposition candidates in the 2012 presidential election.
Over the past three years, President Park has put all her efforts into achieving economic democracy. Yet, the process has revealed that economic democratization is far more challenging than political democratization, and it has become apparent that this mission will never be successful without a smoothly functioning political system. In other words, the three-decade experiment that was Korea’s first democratization movement has now faced its limit. Public consensus is that overhauling the operational system of Korean democracy can no longer be delayed in the decades to come.
The clock is ticking for the president — she is limited to a single term, in accordance with the country’s original democratic principles. Her earlier appeal to refrain from any emotional discussion regarding a constitutional amendment in order to focus on economic reforms was persuasive. However, as April’s general election draws closer and with the country set to hold the next presidential election in 2017, we wonder if we should stick to our original democratic principles — which have increasingly waned in their efficiency — for the next administration and for the next 30 years. President Park stands at an important juncture, where she must ignite national discussion about overhauling our governance system. The talks on a constitutional amendment for a second democratization cannot be delayed any longer. If the first democratization was the outcome of a political struggle, the second movement will be a far more difficult journey of systemizing the ethics of compromise. But Koreans have a DNA that is resilient to crisis. There is no need for us to give up on the possibility of a grand coalition, like in Germany, believing we have no ability to do so.