Posted : 2011-11-28 17:12
Updated : 2011-11-28 17:12

’Tear gas democracy’

By Andrew Salmon

Well, congratulations to Rep. Kim Seon-dong of the Democratic Labor Party for dragging the image of South Korean parliamentary democracy to its lowest-ever ebb.

This gentleman of politics was beamed across TV news worldwide as he heaved a tear gas grenade at the voting podium, before being hauled off, roaring and screaming, during the National Assembly vote on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

Even in a parliament noted for unruly and sometimes violent behavior, this was an unedifying spectacle for two reasons.

One, throwing a gas canister at the podium in a democratic parliament smacks more of the actions of an anarchist than of the member of an elected assembly.

Two, the spectacle of a man ― a parliamentarian, no less! ― who has lost total control of himself and his emotions is one that educated, rational minds recoil from: Fanatics have no place in civilized society.

I would imagine that custodians of the National Brand Committee are tearing their hair out at this latest blot on Korea’s image.

Speaking more broadly: Is it any wonder that the average South Korean is (according to polls) one of the most dissatisfied citizens in the developed world? Given that the behavior of society’s elite ― politicians and big-time businessmen ― is so consistently abusive, I would say ``No.”

In the 1980s, people worldwide observed with admiration the noble manner in which ordinary Koreans seized democracy from a brutal government. In the 21st century, global consumers worldwide are impressed with the excellence of Korean-made products.

Yet again and again, parliamentarians act like thugs; again and again, business leaders act like criminals.

But at least there is a control system in politics: Erring politicians can be voted out. Not so with business.

Those who control conglomerates are endlessly tried for crimes, ranging from corruption and financial malfeasance to kidnapping and torture. With shareholders powerless, the only check is public institutions, judges absolve them on the grounds of their centrality to the economy.

These judgments raise questions. Are these business leaders really such great businessmen? Perhaps their companies have been successful, not because of these men, but despite them? Moreover, if judges believe economics trumps justice, why are they engaged in law?

But enough. I doubt this will change until a new generation of judges takes their seats on the bench. I will restrict my comments to the political sphere where change is feasible.

Of course, there are pluses to the ``never a dull moment in Korea” concept that Kim’s actions exemplify. Sports fans and fraternity house boys might argue that politics is too much pontification, not enough pugilism. In this light, Seoul’s brawl-prone assembly is perhaps the most entertaining parliament on earth.

Violent assembly shenanigans also bring to mind the fantasy that front-line soldiers have indulged in since the dawn of barbarity, i.e. ``Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of us lot fighting, our political leaders want toe-to-toe instead?”

(This raises the question as to what the world’s leading nation might be, were this system somehow instituted. Sarkozy’s stature and Kim’s paunch suggest they would both be hopeless in a ruck. Cameron is too chubby to brawl; Lee too thin. Obama is buff and Merkel has a killer look in her eyes, but I suspect neither would have a prayer against Putin, leaving Russia supreme. But I digress.)

However, parliaments are not designed to showcase rucks and brawls: The rugby field and UFC cages fulfill those requirements. So I hope that Rep. Kim is appropriately punished. (And oh, what irony that a member of his party, of all parties, would bring the riot policeman’s tool to the podium!)

If he is not censured ― and I fear he may not be; there is, in my opinion, too much tolerance for emotional outbursts in this society ― tear gas may become a regular feature of the parliamentary process. If that happens, what will be the next escalation?

Yet I have a sneaking sympathy for Rep. Kim.

A cynical joke, often misattributed to Benjamin Franklin, goes: ``Democracy is two wolves arguing with a lamb over what is for lunch.”

Democracy is the best system we may have for human governance, but it’s not perfect, particularly in Korea, where, currently, both the National Assembly and the Blue House rest in the ruling party’s hands.

Moreover, the assembly is unicameral. This means that (until next year’s elections) there are few checks or balances on the power of the ruling party-presidential alliance at the national political level.

I am not suggesting that the ruling party’s railroading of the FTA bill through the Assembly was undemocratic, given their majority. It was. And I applaud the party for doing something rare in domestic politics: Ignoring uninformed and emotive populism and acting responsibly in national interest.

But under the existing setup, the opposition ― who let us remember, represent a significant proportion of the electorate ― are powerless. There is no appeal; parliamentary votes are final.

This goes some way toward explaining ― though not excusing ― the frequent brawls we see in front of the podium, and Kim’s extraordinary antics.

Given this, I raise a constitutional question. Should the Republic of Korea consider inserting another check-and-balance into its governance structure by adding an upper house to the National Assembly?

Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, ``Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. He can be reached at
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