The art of the possible
The author is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn has enjoyed some gains from his nationwide tour criticizing the Moon Jae-in administration. He started the tour in Busan on May 7. After 15 days — and only five months after he began his political career — Hwang has become a rallying figure for the conservative forces. He has created a strong image as a fighter against President Moon and a contender for the next presidential election.
It is no surprise that he went to Gwangju, an important site for the democracy movement in Korea. The issue is his sincerity in commemorating the victims of the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement. As expected, he faced fierce protests in the city. As a result, he could unite the conservatives and supporters in Gyeongsang. Hwang’s opponents said he sought this effect. After his visit, he wrote a message on Facebook, “I will visit Gwangju with sincerity and meet Gwangju residents.” His actions in the future will verify the authenticity of those words.
Hwang’s opponents said he was following the strategy of former President Roh Tae-woo. Roh, who was a presidential candidate for the conservative ruling party in 1987, was showered with stones during his visit to Gwangju. Bodyguards used bulletproof shields to protect him and Roh hurriedly left. Thanks to that episode, conservative voters in Gyeongsang were united. During the rallies of Kim Dae-jung in Daegu, North Gyeongsang, and Kim Young-sam in South Jeolla, similar situations took place.
The police said supporters of the two Kims attacked Roh. Some said intelligence agents instigated the attacks. Political observers said Roh would win if the votes in Gyeongsang and Jeolla were split between the two Kims. And that happened during the presidential election. But as the opposition parties won general elections, the ruling party became a minority, and former presidents ended up in prison in the coming years. Regionalism is a speedy way to unite supporters, but it turns into a stumbling block when you try to expand your base.
Presidential elections were a battlefield at the time, yet politics worked. Though political leaders took advantage of the confrontational structure, they based their calculations on people’s thinking. They talked even during the most pitched battles and knew when to compromise. That is not old-fashioned politics.
Fighting outside the legislature against the administration is thrilling. Supporters feel excited. But it cannot stay there. “With the battles in the National Assembly, we cannot stop the leftist dictatorship of the Moon Jae-in administration,” said Hwang. Even if he is right, the National Assembly is a crucial venue to resolve the complaints of the people.
The National Assembly failed to function because of the ruling party. Now, we only see opposition parties in the legislature. The ruling party has no presence and no one is taking responsibility for state affairs. While the opposition criticizes the government for its wrongdoings, the ruling party puts the blame on past conservative administrations — no one tries to pass bills and budgets.
Even under previous authoritarian governments, the ruling party had a sense of responsibility; it tried to persuade opposition parties to pass budget bills. It sometimes revised — or scrapped — bills presented by the president. When opposition parties strongly opposed nominations of cabinet ministers, the ruling party sometimes reconsidered and overturned them. It never blamed the opposition parties for slow progress. It never overlooked deadlocks in state affairs.
We don’t see statesmen in the National Assembly. We only see politicians and lawyers. They only care about what’s right and what’s wrong — but politics is not a trial. Yet they are intolerant of what they disagree with. The ruling party campaigned to “eradicate accumulated evils,” while the opposition campaigned to “end dictatorship.” Not everyone has the same view, yet they brand different political views as wrong.
They also have little political imagination. They treat politics as if it were math. They argue that the input and the output must be the same. The government is not planning to send rice to North Korea because it supports its missile launches. When you are willing to take a small loss, you can expect a larger compromise. Politics must move ahead of the people, but it is now chasing the people. Sometimes, it is going in the opposite direction.
Politics is not an equation. No matter how important past issues may have been, you cannot concentrate on them while abandoning the current state of affairs. It is foolish to give up all cooperation with a neighboring country just because past issues were not resolved.
It is fortunate that President Moon is planning to meet opposition leaders. Meeting with the leader of North Korea, which started a war against South Korea — with a smile — is politics. There is no need to call Kim Jong-un a dictator. Likewise, there is no reason for the ruling party to start a war against opposition parties by calling them “accumulated evils” and “heirs of dictatorship.” The president must meet opposition leaders often to resolve the current situation. The ruling party is responsible for passing a supplementary budget bill and other bills concerning the public’s livelihoods. It should help save face for the opposition party and engage it as it is a partner, not an enemy.
It is frustrating to listen to the comments of the ruling and opposition leaders. The general election will be held next April. There is still a long and rough way to go, but state affairs must never stop — resolving the impossible is the point of politics and politics is about finding a path to satisfy both sides, not just enlarging benefits for one’s side.
I hope our lawmakers meet in the National Assembly soon after the floor leaders’ pub meeting on Monday night.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 21, Page 31