Roh’s parting adviceThis year marks the 20th since the Asian financial crisis, which sent South Korea pleading for an international bailout — and ended up completely overhauling its economy. Today, politics is the realm in real need of an overhaul. The first decade of this century was the time of liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Conservatives ruled the current decade.
It looks like the next occupant of the Blue House will be liberal following the fall of President Park Geun-hye. Moon Jae-in, former head of the main opposition Democratic Party, maintains a lead in the latest survey with a 33 percent support rate, with South Chungcheong Gov. An Hee-jung of the same party coming on fast with 20.4 percent. The two front runners command more than half of the eligible votes. When including Seongnam city Mayor Lee Jae-myung of the same party at 5 percent, voters clearly favor a liberal to become the next president.
South Korea did not swing to the left overnight. The country was rather solidly conservative until the fall of Park. Kim Dae-jung came to power through a political cohabitation with conservative heavyweight Kim Jong-pil. As his term was under the influence of the International Monetary Fund because of the bailout, President Kim inevitably had to accept the neo-liberal conservative prescriptions of restructuring of industries, privatization, and massive layoffs.
His successor Roh joined hands with another popular conservative, Chung Mong-joon, a businessman-turned-politician of the Hyundai Group’s founding family, and was elected by mustering some votes from the traditional conservative stronghold of South and North Gyeongsang. He carried out policies like cuts in corporate tax, free trade with the United States, the dispatch of troops to Iraq, and labor flexibility to win favor of the broader conservative population. Liberal presidents needed to compromise with conservatives to lead a country onto the path of growth.
Conservatives actually began to waver under conservative President Lee Myung-bak. They felt betrayed by his failed “747” campaign promise of delivering 7 percent growth and per capita income of $40,000 and to make the economy the world’s seventh largest. The economy grew in the 3 percent range during his five-year term and by the time he resigned, inequalities deepened with the income concentration of the highest 10 percent reaching nearly 45 percent.
The conservatives started to doubt the orthodoxy of growth and trickle-down wealth. But Park Geun-hye was clever enough to recruit economist Kim Chong-in during her presidential campaign — who later became the interim leader of the Democratic Party — and he came up with an economic democratization slogan and stronger social welfare platform promising basic monthly pensions of 200,000 won ($175) for the elderly. Park was elected by acting like a liberal. Since it was not her idea in the first place, it is no wonder the agenda was soon chucked away.
The liberals and the supporters of Roh have made a comeback. Before he tragically ended his own life in May 2009, Roh left a reflection on his presidency filled with accusations and lessons for the liberals in the future.
Roh wrote: “The conservatives confidently call for deregulation, smaller government, restructuring, privatization, and a flexible labor market. Their claims are persuasive based on public sentiment. The liberals should accept what should be accepted and compromise on what needs to be compromised. People who have been to prison act with moral superiority, but they show their limit as gone are the days of resistance. Chaebol critics still criticize the Korean family-run conglomerate business style. But has the chaebol style entirely failed?
Are all businesses run by professional entrepreneurs successful? I still am not confident about the effect of the cap on cross-sharing investment. I have been labeled a betrayer by the liberals and unions. But we need to talk in practicalities. We need to have flexible attitudes. The world does not change upon a change in the ruling power. The policy must change. The president is important. But he or she cannot do anything without the help of the legislature. Nothing gains impetus without public support. At the end of the day, the party commanding the legislature is most important.”
The extreme liberals and conservatives have seen their day. The outcome is the political crisis we see today. What must come down are the vested powers of the mainstream. The liberals must present a new, flexible solution going beyond the extremes. That is what Roh would advise to his liberal pupils Moon and An.
Governor An appears to be closer to upholding Roh’s legacy. He proposes to yield the authority to name the prime minister to the majority party. He said he would be ready to succeed with any promising policies of either liberal and conservative presidents including Lee’s green growth agenda and Park’s creative economy platform. The former anti-American youth group leader could be feigning a policy of engagement to win votes. Regardless of his motives, a liberal candidate with refreshing ideas has won attention from the centrists.
Moon, however, remains chained to the old school. His rhetoric is the highly familiar rage-fueled fight for justice, against the chaebol and against America. His longtime friend and boss Roh advised his successors to look beyond ideology and seek practicality. Stéphane Hessel, the modern champion of resistance against economic and social injustice with the rallying cry “Indignez vous (Be outraged),”
confessed at 93: “It is true the reason to be indignant can seem today less clearly related or the world too complex.” What Moon resorts to these days — resistance to constitutional reform to further ensure separation of powers and use of power through majority seats in the legislative — used to be the conservative’s norm. Hessel advised, “To create is to resist. To resist is to create.” Lack of creativity was what made Lee Hoi-chang lose to Roh in the presidential election nearly a decade ago.
We hope the two liberals can bring about an upgraded and inventive liberal front through a fierce contest of policies and vision. That would make Roh very proud.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 22, Page 31
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.