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Democracy, the unending battle

The candles may have been put away, but you must keep the fire burning.
May 26,2017
Since its first conception, the idea of a liberal democracy has never been a settled one. Debate has raged. Churchill was cynical — “the best argument against democracy is a 5-minute conversation with the average voter” — and Plato wary, “dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy.” And yet, in broad terms even democracy’s most dismissive critics who live behind her shield do not want to go back to the ‘bad old days’ of kingdoms and dictatorships.

In recent times, we have seen how fragile this shield of freedom can be, with the rise of populist leaders such as Trump and Le Pen in the West, and the attempt by Park Geun-hye to seemingly take South Korea back to the 1970s. This fragility is something we must constantly be aware of and exercise vigilance to protect the freedoms we cherish. We must remember democracy has no finish line — it is a constant journey — and one that we walk with the aim of bringing North Korea alongside us somewhere in the distance.

Since Park’s removal from office and Moon Jae-in’s victory in the May 9 snap election, the Western press has been quick to praise South Korea, the Washington Post leading with the headline “South Korea just showed the World how to do democracy,” and there has been much talk of the spirit demonstrated by this ‘young democracy.’

This praise is deserved, but I also find it slightly patronizing. As mentioned above these, if you like, ‘old democracies’ are at risk of being hijacked by nationalistic and isolationist agendas and cannot rest on their laurels any more than South Korea can afford to in the coming years. Indeed, in my country, the U.K., one of the oldest democracies, we are just starting to feel the early effects of our rash decision to leave the European Union, again brought on by nationalistic fervor and false promises from conceited leaders.

Next month, the U.K. will hold another general election (the second in two years) in which the much-criticized Conservative party who delivered a Brexit is expected to win a huge majority and consolidate their position, mainly due to a spineless opposition. Three major votes in the space of 25 months which will have changed the face of my country forever, and probably not for the better. Perhaps too much democracy is indeed unhealthy for a nation? The squabbles over how to manage it persist.

Perhaps Korea does indeed have things it can learn about its democracy from the problems suffered by these so-called ‘advanced economies.’ However, it is not so straightforward as cultures, language and people, differ. We cannot easily choose a strategy for developing a democracy for a country simply because it worked for another country. Over the centuries, however, the debate on democracy has been a productive — if not necessarily conclusive — one. And so, it was pleasing to observe two fundamental principles for maintaining a healthy democracy being put into practice in the first few days of Moon Jae-in’s presidency.

The first of these is the important of education. As U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt acknowledged, education is the key safeguard of democracy. “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely,” he said. One of Moon Jae-in’s first acts as president was to abolish the widely despised state history textbooks whitewashing the Park Chung Hee dictatorship and reducing the efforts of pro-democracy activists to mere footnotes.

It is widely accepted that the younger generations in Korea have a much more liberal outlook than the older generations and this cynical attempt to reverse this trend has rightly been stopped in its tracks. Education, especially unbiased state education, is key in Korea, in particular, where it can act as a counterbalance to the ‘education’ received from a largely conservative-dominated media, which brings me to the second principle, freedom of the press.

The differences between the two pictures were stark. In the first image, reporters sat sedately, subdued even, expressions sullen, their hands in their laps, as if they were attending a lecture. In the second picture, hands were raised, reporters sat forward in their chairs, eager to be called.

The first picture was of one of Park Geun-Hye’s rare press conferences at the Blue House. Questions prearranged, answers scripted, no surprises, follow the script please. The second scene was at one of Moon Jae-in’s early press conferences since becoming president. Watching the second press conference, one could almost feel the wave of elation amongst the journalists in the room. We can ask questions! We can ask our own questions!

Without a free and open press, it is difficult for the people to form informed opinions, contribute to the debate, and contribute to the democracy. From debate comes solutions. I have faith that President Moon will do a lot of good in for Korea, but will he make mistakes? Of course, he will, no one is perfect, (already I implore him to rethink his attitude towards LGBT people).

But those mistakes must be held up in the light so the country can learn from them, get over them, and improve. They should not be hidden, buried or simply never be spoken about, as was the modus operandi of the Park Geun-Hye government. Its lack of accountability proved a fertile breeding ground for abuse and corruption.

Like the pictures described above, the change to a feeling of optimism in Seoul over the last week from the dark stupor of the last few years has this writer filled with hope for the future of Korea. But caution, vigilance, this is no time to relax. The candles may have been put away, but you must keep the fire burning.

*The author is an assistant professor at Hongik University.

James Copeland