Summer of discontentI visited London in late May for a media-related seminar. London is rich with the legacy of the golden age of empire but is also a modern center of international finance and fashion. It has a unique appeal that’s very different from other cosmopolitan cities like New York and Tokyo. I should have seen something ominous in the surfeit of Muslims and homeless people on the streets, but I was too engrossed with the new London — that only a few weeks later decided to break away from the rest of the Europe.
Various interpretations have been made to explain what led the British to opt for the leave choice. The decisive reason was a roar of rage by the populace, frustrated by killer rents, unemployment and tax rates aggravated by the flood of immigrants.
The British needed a scapegoat, and they blamed it all on the European Union. They felt constant meddling from the EU had caused their problems. Resentment was highest among the working class. The Guardian said the underclass and undereducated were behind the majority vote to leave the EU.
According to the paper, towns with median annual income of over 25,000 pounds ($33,000) delivered strong “remain” votes. It was similar for constituencies with more than 35 percent of their residents with higher education. Rural and working-class neighborhoods with a higher ratio of uneducated residents heavily backed “leave.” That is why the Brexit vote is seen as a rude awakening to the reality of class conflict in the nation. Behind the resentment against the EU was actually a revolt against the elite class, the better-off.
A similar phenomenon is panning out in the United States. Donald Trump who pledges to overturn what Washington has stood for in the past decades — liberalism and globalism — is unabashedly protectionist, U.S.-first and anti-immigrant. He has fervent support from the urban working class, rural areas and struggling industrial regions.
Trump has risen as an undeniably formidable presidential candidate despite his blatant disregard for the decorum Americans scrupulously and pretentiously endeavor to uphold. His crude rhetoric debunks the political elite and intelligentsia who had regarded him as a joke. The joke’s on them because he’s all the rage with voters.
The common thread, a mantra that enough is enough and it’s time for a change, is also brewing in Korea. Our long-standing regional divide is undiminished, and now there’s confrontation among generations and classes. The gap between rich and poor has widened since the two financial crises. According to the International Monetary Fund, Korea has the biggest income inequality among 22 Asian countries as of 2013. With little hope of income increasing as the economy faces structural problems, people are hard-pressed to make ends meet amid burdensome rent and education costs. Exports have been contracting for 17 months in a row, and youth unemployment has been reaching new highs every month, all fanning public anger toward the system and establishment.
The bigger the imbalance, the greater the likelihood that Koreans could go for an extreme choice. The British chose to divorce from the EU, and if Americans pick Trump as their next president, it would all be part of the same turning point in history. Later events will prove that they have taken the wrong path. Brexit will strengthen isolationist and protectionist policies and breed the politics of neo-nationalism and revolt. History paid a dear price for taking a similar path. This is why we dread the consequences of Brexit.
Inequalities and injustices in our society have also reached dangerous levels. The April 13 legislative election partly exposed how contemptuous the people are of the mainstream. Politicians remain oblivious, of course. The 20th National Assembly has been dysfunctional from its opening session. The parities are wrangling over the number of hearings they want to hold on the issue of corporate restructuring, extending the special probe into the Sewol ferry disaster, raising corporate tax rates and nationalizing history textbooks. Our anger is simmering. Korea has a presidential election in December 2017. We don’t know what choice the frustrated and wary people will make then.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 27, Page B8
*The author is the industry news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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