Dividing the nation
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
Ruling Democratic Party floor leader Lee In-young must have been a fan of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” when he was young. I presume this because he reminded me of the 14th-century Chinese novel when he said, “Countless candles were lit in Seocho-dong. Some say one million, others say two million.” In the battles of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” 1 million troops were often mobilized and annihilated completely. And that was when the total population of China was less than 50 million.
I find it unfitting for the ruling party floor leader to bluff more than Luo Guanzhong, author of the novel. I only remember one occasion in which 2 million people gathered in one place in Korea. For the funeral of Yonsei University student Lee Han-yeol in July 1987 — at the peak of anti-government protests — people were packed in the City Hall traffic circle and Gwanghwamun Square, even before many left the Yonsei University campus to join the funeral in central Seoul.
Anyone can check the reality of those protests in Seocho-dong from the Seoul Metropolitan Government website. If you log on to the stats of the population living in Seoul, you can find detailed data on the number of people at a certain location by hour, gender, and age. They are numbers based on big data, including public transportation and telecommunication usage. In an age when the science of big data tells the truth, politicians in Korea engage in a more ancient way of calculating the number of participants in a rally, borrowing from “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”
The Justice Minister Cho Kuk scandal has been continuing for two months. In the meantime, the nation is sharply divided by the politics of public protest, where people who want to push out Cho Kuk compete with people who want to protect the embattled justice minister. I think this didn’t happen spontaneously — someone made it happen.
Since the liberal Moon Jae-in administration began, everything in Korea is in dichotomy. The country is bisected into dichotomies of good versus evil, justice versus injustice, a standoff between reforms and deep-rooted evils. The ruling group claims to have a monopoly on the good, justice and reform. In the process, it could enjoy a relatively high approval rating by bringing the moderates to its side.
But the Cho Kuk scandal is destroying that calculation. Many people withdrew their support for President Moon Jae-in as an icon of justice and fairness after realizing he was the opposite. An opinion poll shows that Moon’s approval rating has fallen to 32.4 percent, the lowest point ever. Everyone except for unconditional supporters seems to have left the camp. Yet the ruling party is confident that it has a solid 32.4 percent of supporters. So, for the government and ruling party, the only way to resolve the situation is to divide friends and foes. The outcome is the heated confrontation between crowds in Seocho-dong and Gwanghwamun. Their calculation is simple: even if more people gather in Gwanghwamun than in Seocho-dong, it would not translate into a liberals’ defeat in next year’s general election as the people would not necessarily vote for conservative opposition parties.
Elections can be held in that way, but state administration is something else. The problem is that the ruling power is using the strategy of division, taking sides, a battle between good and evil, even on external issues. The ending of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Japan — over which the public opinion was divided equally — was just such a case. That was an outcome of the government using the pro-Japan versus anti-Japan framework instead of addressing a diplomatic conflict with Japan in a diplomatic way.
People who blamed the government for not acting for eight months despite signals of Japan’s disquiet with the Korean Supreme Court’s rulings on wartime forced labor lost their voices in the pro-Japanese versus anti-Japanese framework. Anyone criticizing the government on this matter is branded pro-Japanese. The problem is that the pro-Japanese framing strategy makes the discord more tangled rather than finding a solution. Japan sees through the divided public opinion in Korea. So, even if a negotiation begins, Korea is already disadvantaged.
North Korea is repeatedly launching missiles and the defense minister repeatedly says they don’t violate the inter-Korean military agreement in Pyongyang last year. When North Korea excludes South Korea from nuclear talks and ridicules Moon with such vulgar phrases as “a boiled cow head,” the defense minister defends North Korea by saying, “That’s the way Pyongyang talks.” But if you criticize our government’s North Korea policy or the Kim Jong-un regime, you will be condemned as a Cold War-era relic. A North Korea policy that gets only half the support because the nation is divided cannot get traction.
There are many challenges ahead. Our urgent task is not prosecution reforms. The leader who must save the nation from the abyss is only pushing the country and people closer to its precipice.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 10, Page 28