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Resisters of change

Nov 21,2019
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Lee Chul-ho
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

It’s surprising that Rep. Kim Se-yeon of the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) recently declared he will not seek reelection next year, while Im Jong-seok, President Moon Jae-in’s former chief of staff, announced his exit from politics. The two men were political heavyweights, yet they yielded their positions quite calmly. The most astonishing part, however, is that Korea’s political landscape is not moving one inch despite those bombshell announcements. Some senior LKP lawmakers who are supportive of former President Park Geun-hye criticized Kim for saying that all key members of the LKP should retire from politics in order to ensure the future of Korean conservatism, saying he was “setting fire to his home” after leaving the party to establish a new one. The criticism is a ruse to prevent a reshuffle. Ruling Democratic Party (DP) lawmakers of the so-called 386 generation seem to be protesting calls for them to follow in the footsteps of Im, saying they feel “insulted” by the idea that they’re hogging political seats.

One realistic reason why the two politicians’ announcements are failing to have ripple effects is that the leadership of the DP and LKP do not want to provoke their own lawmakers right now, at a precarious time when they soon have to amend election laws. But such an attitude shows how rigid the Korean political realm is. Both the conservative and liberal spheres are obsessed with their own survival rather than their political values, and such retrogressive features have been seen more often in the Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in administrations than before. The entire public is growing frustrated over politics.

To some extent, Korean politics have developed. Over the years of democratic rule, Korean politics overcame some weaknesses and wooed moderates. The Kim Young-sam government embraced Yi Jae-oh and Kim Moon-soo, both hardcore activists outside the power circle. The Kim Dae-jung government embraced conservative Lee Jong-chan and Kim Joong-kwon, assigning them to be national intelligence chief and presidential chief of staff, respectively. The Roh Moo-hyun administration kept a political balance by tapping career diplomats Ban Ki-moon and Song Min-soon as foreign ministers. Even when the Lee Myung-bak administration was a lame duck toward the end of its term, it was Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik and Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, both from the liberal Jeolla region, who worked side-by-side with the president. Voters appreciated such attempts to mitigate regional and political rivalries.

But Korean politics have been moving backward since the Park Geun-hye administration. The Park and Moon administrations have kept selecting members from their own political fields for top positions. The political criteria for the Park Geun-hye administration were loyalty and betrayal. It believed that only people on its side were truthful. During a cabinet meeting, Park once went so far as saying that the public will have to make a judgment on “the politics of betrayal.” The Park administration was a “makjang drama,” or a soap opera that jumped the shark, that sidelined former Saenuri Party floor leader Yoo Seong-min in 2015, nominated pro-Park figures for the general election in 2016 and finished short in 2017 with Park’s impeachment. Throughout the process, conservative values like freedom, republicanism and self-sacrifice have all evaporated, leaving behind a witch hunt tracking down whether people were pro-Park or not. It appeared Park took a line from her autobiography and used it as her guideline for statecraft: “There’s nothing more depressing and ugly than a person betraying another person.” It’s still hard to understand why Park divided the world between loyalty and betrayal, a dismal set of standards from feudal times.

The Moon Jae-in administration is, surprisingly, not much different. The core power circle is composed of an exclusive community of figures who were either members of the National College Students’ Council, the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy or the Minbyun-Lawyers for a Democratic Society. The group keeps splitting sides to identify their friends and foes. They first tried to seek revenge through their “jeokpye (deep-rooted evils) eradication” campaign, then aimed at plucking out what they called “tochak waegu,” pro-Japanese forces, as the forced labor issue arose. They are fanning anti-Japanese sentiment and nationalist populism. It’s difficult to find liberal values such as equality, morality and human rights in such a confrontational environment. The true face of liberals showed through during the Cho Kuk scandal. Some liberal members who raised reasonable criticisms of Cho were accused of causing internal mayhem. The primary rule of communication that one must not misunderstand genuine opposition from a hostile attack was ignored.

As the political poles continue their confrontation, moderates in the gray area are increasing. There are many people in the Gwanghwamun weekend protests who are against the Moon government’s self-righteousness but do not support the invalidity of Park’s impeachment. There were many people in the Seocho-dong protests who called for prosecutorial reform but felt uncomfortable chanting “Protect Cho Kuk!” On college campuses, students held candlelight vigils supporting Park’s impeachment and opposing Cho. These people did not join the protests because they were conservatives or liberals. They attended to show their objection to unfairness, which is why assessing their actions through the conservative-versus-liberal frame only invites confusion.

Both the ruling and opposition parties will be aiming at attracting moderates for their own reforms and innovation. DP Rep. Rhee Cheol-hee said he will not run in next year’s general election and encouraged other lawmakers of the 386 generation to do the same. Luckily, young members of liberal parties who are in their 20s and 30s support a reshuffle, claiming that lawmakers played key political roles for 30 to 40 years after spending just three to four years fighting for democracy in their college years. Sadly, however, there are no such voices in the LKP. LKP Rep. Kim Se-yeon said new people should lead the moderates and conservatives, but the message is not echoing. Both the DP and LKP will claim reforms but end up kicking out just a few people. But they are being closely watched by moderates and swing voters. Mark Twain once said, “Politicians and diapers should be changed often.” These days, that satirical quote has a ring of truth.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 20, Page 35