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SEOUL — Some weeks ago, I attended an academic conference that attempted a critical evaluation of the performance of administration of South Korea President Kim Dae Jung three years after its inception. I sat on a panel with probably the most prominent liberal political scientist in South Korea today, Professor Choi Jang Jip. For many years Choi, who teaches at Korea University in Seoul, was a close personal adviser of Kim. After Kim was elected president, Choi was appointed head of the Presidential Commission on Policy and Planning, an influential position in the inner circle of power.

Choi’s excursion into the political world did not come to a happy end. The scholar turned politician felt the muscle of the conservative establishment. Eventually, attacks against him — which were backed by an influential media-group — became so fierce that the president had no option but to sacrifice his adviser on the altar of political harmony.

At the conference, Choi presented a penetrating analysis of the problems and impediments barring Kim from implementing his political reform agenda. According to Choi, the two stumbling blocks that prevent the liberal transformation of South Korea’s political system are hyper-centralization and the ideological schism and the prevailing anticommunist ideology.

Choi considers “hyper-centralization to be one of the most important cultural and structural aspects of politics and society in (South) Korea.” He argues that hyper-centralization has made political pluralism almost impossible.

The implications of centralism are manifold. In politics, a lack of local autonomy is hazardous for democracy, as it strengthens the winner-take-all mentality and makes competition for public office a fierce life-or-death struggle. Choi’s analysis explains the hostility prevailing in South Korean politics. This has an impact on political style as well as practical implications for relations between the opposing political camps: They tend to be poisoned to a degree that prevents issue-related cooperation in policy matters. Since Kim has lacked a majority in Parliament, passing reform bills against the will of the opposition has been practically impossible.

Choi highlights a second impediment to reform: the ideological schism and conflicts related to the Korean War. These scars have blocked the growth of political tolerance. According to Choi, this has resulted in a lack of political pluralism. “Social demands and interests have hardly been organized at the political level. Opposition has competed as an ideologically alternative force within a narrowly limited ideological spectrum. Under such circumstances, the only powerful political opposition in the sense of a political alternative came from the discriminated region.”

This explanation for political regionalism — which many South Koreans consider the main source of political backwardness — is both original and convincing.

In his inauguration speech, Kim said that political reform would top his list of priorities. “Political reform must precede everything else. Participatory democracy must be put into practice. I will do whatever it takes to realize politics by the people and politics in which the people truly become the masters,” he said in early 1998.

It is helpful to go back to that inauguration speech to see where Kim kept his word. In politics, the record seems bleak. The governing party considers the reduction of the number of lawmakers from 299 to 273 to be one of its main achievements in this field. Although this may be called a success, it has little to do with the promotion of participatory democracy. It is more a quantitative change than a qualitative one.

The government’s failure to abolish or revise the notorious National Security Law is a conspicuous failure and an embarrassment for this country. Nor is encouraging to point out that South Korea is still waiting for the passage of the Human Rights Law, which has been announced on more than one occasion.

One can’t help but ask why Kim, whose credentials as a reformer and liberal politician are beyond doubt, has condoned the lack of action. Choi offers three explanations for the conspicuous absence of reformist zeal. First, he points to Kim’s political weakness. Kim’s power is based on a political coalition of two strange partners, who inhabit opposite poles of the ideological spectrum. A second explanation is South Korea’s confrontational politics, in which petty partisan interests prevail over most other considerations. Finally, Choi mentions regionalism, which he considers to be detrimental to all efforts to reform the political system.

These constraints have been known for quite a while, and it may be assumed that the chief executive is aware of them. Then why didn’t the president embark on a campaign to overcome these constraints from the moment he set foot in the Blue House. I am still waiting for an explanation why the reform-minded president has not sought to reduce his political dependence on the party that arguably represents the most conservative segment of South Korean society. The unholy alliance between Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Pil has just been renewed, leaving little hope for meaningful progress on political reform in the months ahead.

Future historians may well conclude that it was a major strategic blunders for Kim Dae Jung to team up with the right wing instead of forming a wide alliance with forces that aspire to reform the long-established political system. It is too early for a final evaluation, but as things stand today, my guess is he will be remembered as a great statesman who initiated national reconciliation on the divided Korean Peninsula. But the chances are slim he will be remembered as a domestic reformer.

It will be up to the next generation of politicians to further democratize and modernize South Korea’s political system, putting into practice what today’s leaders have said that they want to do.

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