Groupthink won’t do
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
On the 33rd anniversary of the June Democratic Movement last week, President Moon Jae-in visited the torture room of the police’s special division in Namyeong-dong, Yongsan, where student activist Park Jong-chul died during an interrogation in January 1987. In a speech, Moon said conflicts and compromises are a different face of democracy and promised to promote democracy further in our daily lives.
But reality is more complex. Coexistence of multidimensional values — the very strength of democracy, which has evolved over 2,500 years — is in peril. The Moon administration’s door for various opinions remains closed.
The ruling Democratic Party (DP), which controls an overwhelming majority in the legislature, is gagging its lawmakers to stop any internal criticism of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and Rep. Yoon Mee-hyang. Former Rep. Keum Tae-sup, who last year abstained from voting on a plan to create a new investigation agency for senior public servants, was punished for straying from the party line. That constitutes a denial of our Constitution. The Constitution’s Article 46 states, “Members of the National Assembly shall give preference to national interests and shall perform their duties in accordance with conscience as a representative of the nation, without being bound by the intention of a political party to which he or she belongs.”
If the DP, which won 176 seats in the 300-member National Assembly in the April 15 general elections, punishes a lawmaker to maintain its uniformity, how is it different from the military dictatorship they fought?
Clause 2 of Article 114 of the National Assembly Act also states, “Any National Assembly member shall vote according to his or her own conscience as a representative of the nation, without being bound by the intention of a political party to which he or she belongs.”
That clause was introduced in 2002 by the Millennium Democratic Party, established by President Kim Dae-jung. Moon, when he was a presidential candidate, promised that he would refrain from enforcing party-line votes. The law was ignored and the promise abandoned.
Although Moon and the DP vowed to uphold the philosophy of Kim, those have proven to be empty words. Kim had his two feet on the ground firmly. He was a realist who valued not only academic ideals but also a sense of reality.
The DP is at a loss although it is in a most advantageous position. It opened the 21st National Assembly alone and elected the National Assembly speaker on its own. Now, it is demanding to chair all 18 standing committees. It fails to understand the true essence of politics: that compromise must be used to break deadlocks in the legislature. It is lamentable that the DP does not have a great politician anymore.
In 1964, Kim Dae-jung was a lawmaker for the DP. At the time, he did not oppose President Park Chung Hee’s push to normalize Korea-Japan relations. Opposition politicians and leaders of society started a nationwide campaign to oppose Park’s “humiliating” diplomacy with Japan. For instance, Yun Posun, who served as president from 1960 to 1962 before being replaced by Park Chung Hee, called Park a traitor. But Kim Dae-jung did not join them.
Kim concluded that Korea, surrounded by North Korea, China and the Soviet Union, must not make Japan a potential enemy. He worried that Korea would miss the trend of globalization and become isolated if we delayed normalization with Japan, a rising economic superpower at the time. Kim said the opposition party must create a proper alternative to refute the government plan. He also said the opposition party must not oppose a negotiation plan if it ensures mutual interests of the two countries. “Yun’s criticism is anachronistic, so I can just ignore it,” said Park Chung Hee. “But it is really hard to counter someone like Rep. Kim, who supports the principle of Korea-Japan negotiations and presents alternatives.”
Members of the Moon administration who have endured the past with a sense of comradeship are blinded by groupthink — the “Only we are right” attitude. It is also anachronistic. The simple idea of democracy versus anti-democracy won’t allow us to understand the wide, complex world. “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much,” said Walter Lippmann. We must listen to the experience and logic of people with different ideas and desperately try to change people’s minds through logic and argument.
The Moon administration is facing serious crises. The United States and China are demanding us to choose between them, while North Korea is threatening military actions. Korea-Japan relations keep worsening. Although many policies should change, the government insists that all is well. The opposition United Future Party is actually changing after its crushing defeat in the legislative elections. After recruiting Kim Chong-in as its acting head, it is moving toward the center from the right. When public sentiment changes, the outcome can be significant.
A president who is facing a formidable test of history should not be a disciplinarian. Moon may not want to, but he must pardon Keum’s courage in his own beliefs. That is a way to open up the administration and ruling party to different opinions and realize democracy in our daily lives.