Out of the darkKorea will mark the 30th anniversary of democratization, and the first anniversary of the candlelight protest that ended the Park Geun-hye presidency, in the same year.
The candlelight protest was a resistance against the reality of Korea’s democracy, making us realize how dramatic the 30-year journey of democratization has been. How many of the dreams of the protesters who filled the streets 30 years ago were realized? Has the peace at Gwanghwamun Plaza a year ago translated into stability and safety? Let us look at this 30-year-old democracy.
It is astonishing to see the contrasting realities of the grown-up Korean democracy. Accomplishments and limits, light and shadow, brightness and darkness are clearly divided in this system.
Four major indices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) allow us to look into our past, where we stand now and our future journey.
First, Korea has accomplished steady rises in economic development, such as gross domestic product, per capita gross national income, foreign currency reserve, export, stock prices, corporate sizes, advanced technologies, international competition and information technology, all in the years following democratization.
Despite the long-held misunderstanding of dictatorships and conservatives, democracy led the country to economic growth.
Indicators on the role of state, however, are weak. Per capita tax burden ratio, public social expenditure, gini coefficients before and after taxes and the poverty rate are the worst among the OECD countries. The ratio between household disposable income and public transfer is also the lowest. The employment rate of the central government and its spending are also the lowest. The state is performing at only a fraction of advanced democracies. Individual private income is directly linked to quality of life, and the role of the state is absent in our sad reality.
The size, budget and authority of the National Assembly, a channel through which to reflect public demands and opinions to legislation, policymaking and budget planning, are also the lowest. It is no wonder that the country is ranked at the bottom in all social indicators. The rate of public education spending per GDP and public expenditures for college education are the lowest. They are around half the average.
The average voter turnout is the lowest, as well as labor union density. The ratio of irregular workers in the total workforce is the highest, about double the average. The rate of self-employed people is also the highest. Korea is at the bottom for the participation rate of women in management, as well as the ratio of women lawmakers in the legislature.
In contrast, street protests and social conflict indicators are high. It is natural for a society with few lawmakers, low voter turnout, low union density and low representation by women to have frequent protests and more social conflicts. Worse, it is a miracle for a democracy to function properly and reflect the people’s voices when representatives are few, their authorities are small and workers are not unionized.
Freedom and welfare are allowed within the scope of the people’s participation. Furthermore, general elections and presidential elections in Korea do not proportionally represent the people’s will. It is no wonder that the people are holding demonstrations on streets under the current political system.
And the rank on the human dignity index is destined to stay low. The public role of the state is low and democratic system to guarantee the people’s participation and communication does not exist, while social inequality is high. In this country, a life with dignity is nearly impossible.
The suicide rate is one of the world’s highest, while the birth rate is among the lowest. Murders by immediate family members, the fatality rate in car accidents and industrial accidents, women’s rights indicators, work hours, men’s participation in household work and senior poverty rate are all near the bottom among OECD countries. The more we look at the numbers, the more horrifying they are.
In a society, in which all lives are linked, we cannot approach each aspect separately. If we approach politics, elections, the economy, education, labor and welfare all separately, Korea will fall deeper into an inhumane crisis.
Since democratization, Korean society has failed to find democratic resolutions to human problems. All indicators and indices of the OECD, International Monetary Fund and international comparative studies on democracy, freedom, equality and inequality, national development and human conditions show that a parliamentary democracy, national development, social and economic equality and human dignity all advance, or regress, together. The darkness produced by industrialization and democratization in Korea is too deep. Right now, we must end the unilateral pursuit of the bright, the light, the positive and the good without facing the dark, the negative, the evil. Korea’s low birth rate means it is falling off a cliff.
If we only pursue the light, we will ultimately be undone by unseen forces of darkness.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 17, Page 35
*The author is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.