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Korean politics at a crossroad

We must show that we can be as ingenious and reform-minded as the Germans in redesigning our governance system.
Feb 20,2017
Korea’s 5,000-year history has been laden with upheaval and struggle. We are again at a major transitional point.

The country is awash with troubles from within and without. It must try to fight the turmoil through public unity and wisdom. We must not repeat the past mistake of bringing about tragic consequences to the community because of selfish aspirations and pains that have blinded us from noticing the looming storm. During the days of imperialistic powers in the late 19th century, we lost our country by fighting amongst ourselves without realizing the real threat. The nation ended up bisected because we failed to form a united stand during the ideological war following liberation.

We have arrived at another crossroad in history. The severe political and social schism over the president’s impeachment raises questions about our leadership direction amid multiple challenges including a transition to the fourth industrial revolution and rapid changes in the international political scene. Political ineptitude from a fragile democratic system has deepened social distrust and divide, as underscored by street protests between people opposing and supporting the scandal-ridden president.

It was overly naïve to believe we could mature into a democracy based on a presidential system simply by electing a president to a single five-year term under the constitution drawn up in 1987 after the democratization movement. Under Korea’s political culture, a presidential system was bound to breed irresponsible leadership.

The 1987 leadership structure ran smoothly in the first 15 years under the leadership of the first directly voted president, Roh Tae-woo, who managed to work with a majority-opposition legislature and veteran politicking from three political heavyweights — Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil.

But the trajectory in the past 15 years leading up to today’s impeachment crisis has built public consensus that the single-term presidential system requires an overhaul. The public is strongly calling for political action to bring about necessary changes and reforms to push Korean politics to a new level.

As Chang Hoon, professor of ChungAng University, pointed out last week, Korea is past the stage of modernization and democratization, and both the conservatives and liberals must be reborn in response to the changes of the times. President Park Geun-hye attempted to revive the old legacy of top-down governance under her father Park Chung Hee, a system that should have scrapped with the birth of the 1987 democratic system. Her fall finally gives Korean conservatives new traction to divorce itself from the past and start anew.

The liberals who coalesced to fight military dictatorship also remained outdated in their methods because they kept to their contentious ways even after democratization. They now fall short on addressing the challenges of an intelligence-oriented industrial age through innovative ideologies, policy platforms and organizations.

Can Korea safely pass the transitional stage through grand reforms? We are the people that accomplished industrialization, democratization and globalization in staggering force over the last half-century. We stood at the lead in the digital age of the third industrial revolution. If we can achieve unity and muster the will and wisdom, we can make great strides toward a matured society.

The National Assembly speaker and floor leaders of the four biggest political parties recently agreed to follow the result of the
Constitutional Court’s ruling on the impeachment of the president. The fact that politicians agreeing to comply with a court decision made news suggests how feeble Korean politics is. Now that it vows to stay in the path of normalcy, the political sphere must try to reflect the public’s aspirations in their work of reforming the constitution and election laws.

We must show that we can be as ingenious and reform-minded as the Germans in redesigning our governance system. It could be conservatives that lead the way in chaebol reform and the liberals in labor reform. The starting point should be each and every person having commitment to fight this national crisis together. Without a sense of communalism and more understanding and engagement, we cannot overcome these challenges. We must have faith in ourselves for having brought our country this far.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 18, Page 27


*The author, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Hong-koo