Absence of compromise
The author, former president of Korea University, is an emeritus professor of public administration.
The 21st National Assembly is off to a bad start. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle vowed not to repeat the messy politics of the 20th National Assembly. But the 21st Assembly has begun even without filling all the seats in its standing committees. What’s worse is that the ruling Democratic Party (DP) chose to occupy all 18 standing committees on its own.
The DP and the main opposition United Future Party (UFP) keep blaming each other for being the cause of the political wrangling. The DP with 176 seats in the 300-member legislature wants to stop the old practice of the main opposition dragging down the ruling party, while the UFP complains about not having any tools to block the DP’s dominance.
That’s not all. The president blames the National Assembly, the DP blames bureaucrats and the Blue House and the justice minister blames the prosecutor general. Instead of trying to convince their opponents and address disputes together, each party is bent on justifying themselves and chastising others, while hoping the general public takes their side.
Politics is about negotiation and compromise. Pressing your opinions without making any concessions is not politics. We must remember that today’s loss can turn into tomorrow’s gain. Unfortunately, we are not seeing any of this in Korea today. Lawmakers always start off their terms pledging for cooperation through communication and tolerance, but they soon stand off against each other and fight on and on. They condemn conventions reached through political compromise as “bad habits” and attempt to gain by justifying their causes.
The breakdown of the 21st National Assembly began with a scuffle between the DP and UFP to take the chairmanship of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee — a mighty post as all bills must go through the screening of the committee before putting them to a vote. Conflict around law undermines politics. Never before has the country’s justice minister and prosecutor general been at the center of political conflict like today — ironically, many first-term lawmakers in the 21st Assembly engaged in this ruckus previously worked in the legal profession.
Over the past two years, controversy around prosecutorial reforms paralyzed our politics, and parliamentary sessions broke down numerous times as the DP tried to pass a bill aimed at establishing an extraordinary law enforcement agency aimed at investigating high-level government officials, including prosecutors and judges.
DP lawmakers who fought against Korean dictatorship during the 1980s tend to view prosecutors as evil forces. That could be why they think the general public has yearned for prosecution reforms. However, would the public really think about the issue as passionately as the lawmakers, as the vast majority has never gone to a prosecutors’ office before? The DP claims that prosecutorial reform is meant to serve the entire population, but in reality, it’s simply a subject of political mudslinging.
The Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) was tinged with political strife led by justification. The book “Why a good-natured intellect does bad politics,” illustrates the power struggles of intellects during King Seonjo’s rule (1567-1608). Political strife began when a group of reformist Confucians — called the “Sarim faction” — seized political power. In pursuing drastic social reforms, they ignored all opinions from opponents while pushing ahead, refusing to play the politics of persuasion and compromise.
How would future historians evaluate Korean politics today? We must never forget the painful history of the 1592-1598 Japanese invasions of Korea, caused in part by the fierce strife between two rivaling factions in the Joseon era. Great scholar and administrator Yulgok Yi I, who was part of neither faction, was deeply concerned about the fate of Joseon and informed King Seonjo about the severity of the situation.
The United States, Japan, China and Russia are all hell-bent on establishing a new world order that prioritizes their national interest. At a time like this, it is pertinent for Korea to adopt cool-headed realism, rather than idealism.
The paradigm shift of the 21st century has already begun with the pandemic. It’s time for the DP to cooperate with the opposition based on a realistic point of view rather than overbearing statecraft. The pain and agony of small business owners out of work and young adults out of jobs due to Covid-19 apparently outweigh the yearning for judicial reform. Politicians must start worrying about the future of the nation so voters can stop worrying about politics.