Catching the zeitgeist
The author is professor emeritus and former president of Korea University.
The government of Yoon Suk-yeol will be inaugurated on May 10. The relocation of the presidential office from the Blue House to Yongsan could be a symbolic end to the past age and beginning of a new era for Korean politics. On what should the Yoon administration base the design of a future Korea?
On the economic front, the incoming administration will have to taper the ballooning fiscal deficit from record spending during the pandemic and combat strong inflation. It also must realign foreign and security policy, including the alliance with the United States. It must settle conflicts with the super-majority opposition party over its unilateral railroading of a special bill stripping the prosecution of its investigation authority and over the nomination of Han Dong-hoon as justice minister and must fix the confusion over the change in the judiciary system as a part of the prosecutorial reform.
Still, Yoon as president should not be too preoccupied with immediate issues and overlook historical tasks. Yoon was elected president partly thanks to the limits of the Korean political system established after the 1987 democratization movement. He could become the presidential candidate of the opposition party just six months after resigning as prosecutor general and win the election largely because public skepticism with politics had been that big.
Korea had been under a lengthy military regime. But the democratic regime has been in place longer — 35 years since the constitutional reform in 1987 to elect the president through direct voting. For another leap forward, politics needs another zeitgeist. We hope Korea can move beyond the 1987 regime to a new order in 2027 when Yoon finishes his term in office.
Korea can join developed democracies on smooth transitions left and right since single-term five-year presidency came into place in 1987. But the political structure created winner-take-all and other damaging by-products. A ruling power often monopolized political power and ignored opinions of the opposition or the people. Whether it be liberal or conservative, the government distributed top seats in the government and public enterprises as winning trophies and often governed the country with arrogance. It is why Korean voters could not put up with a government running the country for two consecutive terms. Regular or frequent power transitions cannot reflect maturity in Korean democracy.
A new government always promises cooperation with the opposition. But action was hard to follow due to political polarization. Korea long lost the art of compromise. Hardliners lead disputes and extremity has left little room for negotiation. Politics lose cooperation when each party regards the other as the enemy and place priority on winning an election over national interests.
Politics of ideology must change to politics of livelihood. Two parties replacing one another every five or 10 years after winning a presidential election by a narrow margin must stop. More diverse parties like the Justice Party and People’s Party must play a leveraging role among mainstream players.
In Japan, an opposition party won the election after overcoming ideology-based politics. In 1989, the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) snatched a victory in the election of the House of Representatives by fielding female candidates who offered promises to improve livelihoods instead of presenting ideological slogans. The stunning victory of the JSP through female power had been a refreshing shock to the Japanese people. Takako Doi, whose party became first to defeat the mighty Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), exclaimed, “The mountain has moved.”
Politics seeking self-interest must change. Civilian organizations that have prospered since democratization in 1987 must break their ideological preoccupation. My joint research for more than a decade with Yutaka Tsujinaka — a political science professor at the University of Tsukuba on NGOs of Korea and Japan — found that Japanese entities were grassroots and bottom-up, while Korean ones were centralized and top-down organizations. NGOs like the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice and People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, whose influence has increased through political participation, should devote more to common interests.
The time has come for Koreans to deliberate options — the multi-party system, parliamentary cabinet system, large constituency system, runoff system and German-style proportional representation system. Yoon must heed the call of the times and grab an opportunity to pave the way for 2027.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.