Cut the in-fightingThe Japanese people hold Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-67) in high regard as a hero of the Meiji Restoration. He played a key role in changing the country’s fractured Bakufu system to a centralized modern state by facilitating the Satcho alliance. Ryoma was ultimately assassinated at age 31. In his novel “Ryoma Goes His Way,” Ryotaro Shiba characterizes Ryoma as someone who did not want to take a high position. He was focused on uniting Japan and opening the door to the future.
Over one generation of modernization, the fates of Japan and Korea split drastically. Greed and conspiracies were rampant in Japan, but a number of devoted leaders changed the country’s future.
We are at a critical juncture in history that is about as pivotal as the late 19th century. We are living with the presence of a nuclear North, and U.S. President Donald Trump is raising talk of war. But the acting U.S. ambassador to Korea, Marc Knapper, has brushed off Seoul’s prospective role in the driver’s seat. President Moon Jae-in has said that realistically, Korea does not have the power to resolve nuclear tensions or facilitate an agreement. We sing the “Miryang Arirang” high, but Pyongyang is not responding.
Given the Korean economy’s high dependence on trade, things are not going well. China is retaliating, the United States wants to renegotiate our free trade agreement and antagonism against Japan is stronger than the sentiment toward an enemy state like the North. A demographic cliff, welfare burdens and unclear energy policies pose uncertainties. Employment is unstable, and young people are only looking for secure jobs. Where is the fourth industrial revolution? Where is our future?
Our political leaders are increasingly unstable. The ruling progressive party wants to rebuild the nation by eradicating longstanding evils in the country. Their slogan is clear, but their principles and procedures are vague. Events from a decade ago are being repeated, and the future is uncertain.
Meanwhile, the legislature’s largest opposition party is going the way of isolation. The conservative lawmakers’ words are inconsistent and vulgar. They are clinging to an extremely small generational and regional support base and attacking other opposition parties. They are all eyeing the legislative election in June 2018.
In the last election, we saw the seeds of a multiparty system. It was a small comfort and hope for the country. The two-party system can be a bully. It does not allow different voices to defeat the other party. Parties put everything at stake for elections and positions. Now, there is a room for new policies to compete. A sure-fire victory based on regional support won’t happen again — or so we hoped.
There have been third parties in the past, but they were makeshift groups created to win elections. As time went on, our hope was shaken. Newly-formed minor parties are not much different from the establishment. The conservative Liberty Korea Party’s Hong Joon-pyo said voters would clear them out in the next election, and the situation seems to be going in that direction.
The other opposition party, the People’s Party, is going through internal discord. Heavyweight politicians like Chung Dong-young and Chun Jung-bae are condemning the party’s former chairman, Ahn Cheol-soo, saying he should not run for party leadership. After a failed presidential bid, Ahn should take responsibility for spreading false information about President Moon’s son during the campaign.
Ahn claims that Chung and Chun are more radical than the Moon administration. He believes the party under them will give up its moderate line and be absorbed into the ruling Democratic Party. His camp argues that the possibility of cooperation or coalition with another opposition party, the Bareun Party, will diminish.
The Bareun Party’s Lee Hye-hoon shares that understanding. She says she would work with the People’s Party only under Ahn’s leadership. But People’s Party lawmakers based in the liberal region worry that their election prospects could worsen if they join forces with the right-leaning Bareun Party.
These concerns are understandable, but they are not talking about new politics. If they do not pursue new ways of policy making soon, it is only a matter of time before they are absorbed into established parties.
It is an outdated idea that only they can practice new politics. Third parties in the past have all failed. They can only succeed if they have the determination to attain a greater goal by throwing themselves away like Ryoma did. If the organization does not work without any one of its members, it should be abandoned. It is no different from existing parties if members stay solely for elections and votes. It is tragic that they remain together because they have nowhere else to go. Why are they rushing mergers? It would be a good idea to compete in next year’s election. There are many ways to cooperate, and expanding support groups and internal consensus should be the priority.
A more pressing matter is the election law. The politicians already have a consensus, and the small parties are most desperate. They should work on changing the environment instead of trying to grow bigger. When the system changes, the nation will change even without them.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 7, Page 31
*The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.