Restarting the political system

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Restarting the political system

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

Yukio Noguchi, an honorary professor at Hitotsubashi University, predicted South Korea could overtake Japan in economic performance in 10 years. The former finance ministry official and veteran economist raised the possibility as South Korea has already been ahead in per capita GDP in terms of purchasing power, labor productivity, and average wage. In his latest book dictating a reversal of fortune between the two neighboring countries, Lee Myung-chan, a researcher at the Northeast Asia History Foundation, came up with the analysis that a deepening rightist movement and anti-Korea sentiment in Japan originates from anxiety over South Korea’s remarkable rise as seen in economic data.

Samsung Electronics outweighs Toyota in market capitalization. Many Korean enterprises do better than Japanese in operating incomes. Korean superiority defined by the Korean Wave has spilled over to pop culture, games, and overall software and cultural content. The government has been pitching its successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Noguchi warns that Japan may have to yield its place in the G7 to Korea in 10 years.

But such praise may mask dangers ahead. Ten years after the country institutionalized the direct presidential election system in 1987, Korea had to seek an international bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The country brought upon itself such disgrace because it uncorked the champagne too early to celebrate the joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) club of rich economies. Corporate collapses and individual bankruptcies deep-sixed the economy and hardened people’s lives. The government overlooked the danger of fast liberalization shortly after democratization and triggered a national default crisis that sent people to donate their gold rings to help the country stay afloat.

South Koreans elect their eighth president on March 9 since the direct presidential vote was determined in 1987. Three of the past seven presidents were imprisoned and one ended his own life after leaving office. Two others were disgraced by scandals related to family members. Another was impeached and removed from office, a first in Korea’s history. Democracy had been expected to end autocracy and usher the country into a new future. But Korean politics only got worse.

The price of democratization has not been cheap. The economy has grown, but the happiness index has been falling. Wealth disparities and suicidal rates went up. The people’s voice has been heard through democratization, but conflict and communication worsened. The nation pays more heed to interests of individuals and groups instead of the broad society. Individual dignity and value have been easily impaired under the name of freedom. The good of the community is neglected for ideological gains and emotional impulses. Judgment in value has lost consistency and self-righteousness overrules common sense and reason. Politics have always been liable to such phenomena.

The disapproval rates of presidential candidates from both rival parties hover at 60 percent. The two promise anything to get elected. They vow to make college entrance exams easier, supply apartments at half price, offer basic incomes, and raise salaries to every group they meet. They only chase the immediate win without any deliberation on the country’s future. They cause more conflict across age, gender, class and regions in the race for votes and raise questions about their eligibility to lead the country.

A Blue House that controls the legislature resists the politics of compromise and coordination. Legislators become cabinet ministers and the judiciary has been politicized. The principles of mutual checks and balances under the presidential system and the separation of powers in democracy no longer work. When a president disliked by many people wields mighty power — and the two rival parties continue wrangling — the country will lose steam and start to shrink like Japan.

Challenges are ever-growing. While China and Russia are joining forces to stand up to America, North Korea is upgrading its cherished nuclear weapons program. When tensions between the U.S. and China escalate, the Korean Peninsula can become an epicenter for conflict. Fights over tech supremacy and trade protectionism have shaken global supply chains. At home, much-delayed reforms in labor, pensions and educational systems demand attention and demographic challenges should be addressed. Since Fumio Kishida took office as prime minister last year, Japan has embarked on creating a 100-trillion-won ($94 billion) fund to regain its supremacy in high tech and science and plans to invest 3 trillion won annually in universities for future research. In an ironic twist, when the turtle begins to pop the champagne, the rabbit would wake up from a 30-year sleep and start hopping away. The country could invite another crisis if it turns complacent under a spendthrift president.

The 1987 democracy regime was possible through the combined forces of dissidents. We cannot let politics ruin the country’s future. The academy, social activists, religious sectors and civilians must stand up. They must set an effective evaluation system on elected power, including legislators, and systematically groom politicians for the future. We must kick out politicians of falsehood, obstinacy, sensationalism, irresponsibility and entertainment. If there are politicians who seriously worry about the future, they must come forward to contain all-mighty presidential system and all the follies of our bipolar political system.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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