Immature democracy

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Immature democracy

Yeom Jae-ho
The author is a professor emeritus and former president of Korea University.


Sometimes, your enthusiasm comes first. It is human desire to do better and get more. In the 1970s, the entire nation sat in front of the television and cheered for our national team’s football matches. People got upset when the game didn’t go well, and they would even curse at the other teams for fouls. There was a time when people thought Korean players should commit fouls when the referee was not looking. If the team lost, people complained that the referee was not being fair.

Now that we watch English Premier League games, we no longer think a match should be won with fouls. Athletes should play a good match with effort and skill. The professional sports world is beautiful not because athletes want to win but since they do well.

The Moon Jae-in administration was eager to do many things at the beginning. It was willing to embrace and communicate with the opposition, promote talented people, clear up all past wrongdoings, include people in the policy-making process and make policy making transparent. It was determined to build a new country we have never experienced before. People cheered for the cause. But what you want to do is different from what you can do.

There have been many experiments. One example is the government’s attempt to address the nuclear power and the college admissions issues with so-called deliberative democracy. A committee chairman with a legal background and average people got together to discuss the college admissions issue while education experts were excluded. It was like how U.S. President Andrew Jackson recruited his friends and claimed that anyone with healthy common sense could do state administration well. But a good conclusion was not reached through the deliberation. Problems in modern society are not so simple. Variables to consider are complex beyond your imagination, and unexpected outcomes may arise in the course of executing a policy. So experts who studied the issue for a long time should reach an alternative through thorough analysis, discussion and negotiation.

The basic operating theory of presidential democracy is the separation of powers. Executive, judicial and legislative powers should check and balance each other. If legislative power is given legitimacy through election by voters, judiciary and executive powers get legitimacy with expertise. Recently, lawmakers depreciated the judiciary and executive powers as they were not elected. But it is a misunderstanding of democracy.

Prof. Kim Young-pyoung, a scholar on public administration, and others published a book titled “Is Democracy Omnipotent?” criticizing the trend of treating direct democracy as being absolute. High-level officials, judges and prosecutors are empowered to exercise administrative and judicial authorities entrusted by the people through fair state exams. It is the basic system of democracy for legislative, judiciary and executive branches to strike a balance through checks and balances with one another. If politics get involved in judicial and administrative areas, democracy falls into a peril. When politicians claim that only elected power represent democracy and mobilize the public with populist measures, democracy is distorted.

From the perspective of the separation of powers, it is necessary to control excessively large power of the legislature. Korea does not adopt a parliamentary system. Then, is it all right for representatives to take so many ministerial positions? It is hard to understand that a unification minister and SMEs and Startups minister, who don’t have financial background, were appointed members of the finance committee in the National Assembly.

A young professional officer from the Ministry of Strategy and Finance seems to worry more about the future of the nation than elected representatives who are bent on pleasing their party leaders to get district budget and future nomination. People can be reassured only when the executive and judiciary branches keep checking the legislature with their expertise. As pointed out in the book “Is Democracy Omnipotent?” politicians must remember that the biggest virtue of democracy is self-reservation and modesty. In leftist and rightist governments alike, the administration must give up their arrogance that they can do all. If something is overly pursued, procedural justification can cause trouble, and execution will be distorted. I hope politicians’ excessive reform drive won’t infringe on expertise and independence of the executive and legislative branches. Mature democracy is a key element for sustainable national development.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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