By Tong Km
President Lee Myung-bak's approval rate has rebounded to the 30 percent range from a low of in the teens at the height of the massive candlelight protests only weeks ago. President Lee seems to have recovered his confidence to carry out his flagship agenda ― ``economic growth'' and ``national integration.'' However, he needs more support to become a successful president.
The recovery of support for his ill-started presidency has come only after bruising through a series of political ordeals ― from appointing controversial figures to the Cabinet and Blue House positions and mishandling the issue of beef imports ― during which he apologized twice to the people for his mistakes.
In response to the protest of hundreds of thousands of people who denounced the beef deal with the United States, the president fired almost all of his senior Blue House staff members, but he was able to retain most of the Cabinet members after the beef issue calmed down. People in the Blue House seem to think their earlier misfortune was largely due to failed communication and the negative impact of misinformation fed by a biased television program on top of the scare tactics of vicious online writers.
Yet in hindsight, the Lee government could have negotiated a better deal from the beginning that would at least matched the eventually agreed voluntary safety measures ― barring the import of beef from cattle more than 30 months old and specified risk materials with a reinforced inspection regime. And the timing of the initial agreement should have avoided President Lee's visit to Camp David last April.
The National Assembly ― finally pulled together to begin its legislative work ― is expected to hold hearings on the beef agreement with the United States, which undoubtedly will be one of the most contentious political issues between the super-sized governing Grand National Party (GNP) and the opposition parties, including the Democratic Party.
Lee was elected as an economic president with 47.8 percent of the vote in an election that 63 percent of eligible voters participated in, the lowest in Korean history. In other words, Lee received the support of 30 percent of the total voters who were fed up with Lee's predecessor but enthused about his ``pragmatic" pledge of economic growth.
Ideology was not an important issue during the last presidential election. Lee's election was a clear victory for the rightwing conservatives who assailed the governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun and their supporters as ``leftist.''
In South Korea ``leftist'' is still synonymous with ``Communist'' or ``red'' as it was during the cold war period, during which both ruling and opposition forces were equally anti-Communist and anti-North Korean. With the collapse of the old Soviet Union the cold war ended. China is no longer called ``Red China,'' and ideological transformation has taken place on both sides of the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea still calls itself a ``socialist republic of its own style,'' but Hwang Jang-yup, the highest ranking defector from, and the leading ideologue of ``juche (self-reliance) thought'' for the North Korean regime, wrote in his book ``I have seen the truth of history: North Korea is a modern version of feudal society that has combined totalitarianism and feudalism which is remote from socialism.'' In an article published by The Washington Post in 2005 I described North Korea as a ``Confucian Nationalist Monarchy.''
In South Korea, the liberal progressives trace their roots in the democratization movement against military dictatorship and they favor reformist national policies favorable to underprivileged people. They want to represent low and middle class people in national politics. Like conservatives, they share the value of market economy, but stress a balance between growth and distribution. They think the trickling effects from growth through big corporations are not enough. They are not Communists or red and they resent being called ``leftist.'' But the progressives should not forget that it was they who first named the conservatives ``anachronistic antiques preserving the past.''
It is true that the progressives grew in strength and number during the 10-year-rule of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. But they were the products of a changed political and social environment. When the conservatives came into power, former president Kim Dae-jung, a supporter of a two party system, said it was good for the nation that the reigns of government were turned over to the conservatives from the liberals after a decade of control. Implicit in this statement was that the two competing groups should govern in their turn.
Recently President Lee said North Korea would try to instigate an internal confrontation between the progressives and the conservatives within the South, while refusing to talk to the South. Although the progressives prefer engagement with the North to the Lee government's hard-line stand, they are highly unlikely to be influenced by any North Korean attempt to divide the people of the South. Division is already in the South.
The president should learn to work with the opposition parties and to accommodate the people who do not agree with him. He should work to turn them into his supporters. After the candlelit protests, he created a spin team by appointing a public relations planning secretary in addition to the press secretary who serves as the Blue House spokesman. A friendly press may be covetable and the president's staff seems to prefer to have its choices of people to run the state-run television stations. But it won't work and is already backfiring. Control of the press was possible only under the authoritarian regimes of the past. Police and prosecution show some worrisome signs of going back to the past and losing political neutrality. But nobody can turn back the clock for the press, given the full-fledged state of democracy in South Korea.
Roughly speaking, conservatives make up about 30 to 35 percent of the general population, progressives 30 percent and neutrals or centrists about 35 to 40 percent, who support either ideological group depending on the issue or the candidate in an election. In this ideological composition, President Lee and the GNP regained the fixed rates of their support, whereas the Democratic Party had less than 20 percent support in a recent poll.
Change in public support for either the government or the major opposition party should be effectuated on a merit basis beyond the ideological divide. Support for the Democratic Party would not increase if it is seen as a party opposing the government's policy proposals for the sake of opposition. The people want to see the opposition party engage in constructive competition for better ideas and plans that can benefit the well-being of the nation.
There is nothing wrong with the revitalization of competing ideological groups ― conservative and progressive, as long as both share the value of democracy and free economy and both are committed to protect and increase the interest of the nation as a whole. In this sense, both sides should stop calling each other names ― ``leftist'' or ``antique.'' What's your take?
Tong Kim is a research professor with Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University SAIS. He can be reached at email@example.com.