Restart the political system

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Yeom Jae-ho
The author is professor emeritus and former president of Korea University.

Yukio Noguchi, an honorary professor at Hitotsubashi University, predicted that South Korea could overtake Japan in economic performance in 10 years. The former finance ministry official and veteran economist raised the possibility, as South Korea already leads in GDP per capita in terms of purchasing power, labor productivity and average salary. In his latest book dictating a reversal of fortunes between the two neighboring countries, Lee Myung-chan, a researcher at the Northeast Asian History Foundation, offered the analysis that a right-wing movement that deepens and anti-Korean sentiment in Japan stems from anxiety over South Korea’s remarkable rise as seen in economic data.

Samsung Electronics overtakes Toyota in terms of market capitalization. Many Korean companies are doing better than the Japanese in terms of operating revenue. Korean superiority defined by the Korean Wave has extended to pop culture, games, and all software and cultural content. The government showcased its successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Noguchi warns that Japan may have to give up its place in the G7 to Korea in 10 years.

But such praise can mask the dangers ahead. Ten years after the country institutionalized the direct presidential election system in 1987, Korea had to seek an international bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The country has brought itself such disgrace because it opened the champagne too early to celebrate its membership in the club of rich economies of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Corporate collapses and individual bankruptcies have ravaged the economy and hardened people’s lives. The government ignored the danger of rapid liberalization soon after democratization and sparked a national crisis by default that caused people to donate their gold rings to help the country stay afloat.

South Koreans elect their eighth president on March 9 since the direct presidential vote was determined in 1987. Three of the last seven presidents have been jailed and one has ended his life after leaving office. Two others have been dishonored by scandals linked to family members. Another was impeached and removed from office, a first in Korean history. Democracy was expected to end autocracy and usher the country into a new future. But Korean politics only got worse.

The price of democratization has not been cheap. The economy grew, but the happiness index fell. Wealth disparities and suicide rates have increased. The voice of the people has been heard through democratization, but conflict and communication have worsened. The nation pays more attention to the interests of individuals and groups than to those of society at large. Individual dignity and worth have been easily undermined in the name of freedom. The good of the community is neglected for ideological gains and emotional impulses. The value judgment has lost its consistency and self-satisfaction prevails over common sense and reason. Politics has always been subject to such phenomena.

The disapproval rate for presidential candidates from the two rival parties hovers around 60%. Both promise anything to get elected. They pledge to facilitate college entrance exams, provide half-price apartments, offer basic incomes and raise salaries for every group they meet. They seek only immediate victory without any deliberation on the future of the country. They are causing more age, gender, class and region conflicts in the race for elections and raising questions about their eligibility to lead the country.

A Blue House that controls the legislature resists the politics of compromise and coordination. Legislators become ministers and the judiciary has been politicized. The principles of mutual checks and balances under presidential rule and the separation of powers in a democracy no longer work. When a president hated by many people wields mighty power – and the two rival parties continue to argue – the country falters and begins to shrink like Japan.

The challenges are increasing. As China and Russia join forces to stand up to America, North Korea is upgrading its cherished nuclear weapons program. When tensions between the United States and China escalate, the Korean peninsula can become the epicenter of conflict. Struggles for technological supremacy and trade protectionism have shaken global supply chains. In the country, the very late reforms of the labor, pension and education systems require attention and the demographic challenges must be addressed. Since Fumio Kishida took office as prime minister last year, Japan has embarked on the creation of a 100 trillion won ($94 billion) fund to regain its dominance in high technology and science and plans to invest 3 trillion won a year in universities for future research. In an ironic twist, when the tortoise starts popping the champagne, the bunny wakes up from a 30-year slumber and begins to hop. The country could invite another crisis if it becomes complacent under a spendthrift president.

The democratic regime of 1987 was possible thanks to the combined forces of the dissidents. We cannot let politics ruin the future of the country. The academy, social activists, religious sectors and civilians must stand up. They must put in place an effective evaluation system of elected power, including legislators, and systematically prepare politicians for the future. We must expel politicians from lies, stubbornness, sensationalism, irresponsibility and entertainment. If there are politicians who are seriously concerned about the future, they must come forward to contain the all-powerful presidential system and all the craziness of our bipolar political system.
Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily staff.


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