Brainstorming by progressives
After the Grand National Party (GNP) railroaded the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) unilaterally through the National Assembly on November 22, without inviting opposition members to vote, the political aftermath continues. While there is no clear, political winner from the trade deal’s passage, it has paralyzed the bipartisan function of the national legislature, at least for now.
The GNP may have to pass next year’s national budget bill, again unilaterally, without the participation of the opposition parties, reluctantly due to fear of additional political damage. To make up for the damage from the FTA passage, the GNP is trying to focus on welfare programs that the opposition Democratic Party (DP) had championed first.
It would also incur a political cost to the major opposition DP, if it defaults its legislative responsibility by refusing to work on the budget bill that would affect the welfare programs and areas vulnerable to the implementation of the FTA.
The opposition, which successfully politicized the FTA, has decided to fight for the abolishment of the pact. For this to happen, it would take a nationwide demonstration comparable to the magnitude of the 2009 candlelight demonstrations against American beef, which is not likely to take place. The FTA is here to stay at least for the next several years, unless or until either country finds reason to opt out of it.
However, the FTA aftermath is clearly precipitating further polarization of the already divided South Korean voters, who will elect a new national legislature and a new president in 2012. It is difficult for the average person to fully understand the economic benefits and costs from the FTA as argued by the proponents and the opponents. According to a recent poll, disapproval of the FTA increased to 41 percent, while approval showed 47 percent.
Technically, if a progressive government of the left is elected in 2012, it can abrogate the FTA after the first year of its implementation. While the benefit of expanded access to the U.S. market may profit big corporations and some small auto parts businesses, the Korean consumers in theory should benefit from lowered prices for meat and other agricultural products. One year of implementation would not provide a sufficient basis to account for gains and losses.
While the conservative political players of the right are still mulling over ways to do differently and better than under the Lee Myung-bak government, some progressive politicians and intellectuals are starting to brainstorm more fundamental questions as to how Korea should transform itself beyond 2012 in terms of value, system and policy.
While the conservative right has not recovered from its defeat in the Oct. 26 Seoul mayoral election, the progressive left is moving fast to adapt to the shifting patterns of media influence, namely from print and TV media to social networking services (SNS) for exchange of opinions beyond access to the news.
Interestingly enough, Koreans are divided, among other categories by generation between those in their 20 to 40s who are avid SNS users and those 50 and above who read or watch the traditional media, whose views are further divided along the lines of conservative and liberal media output. In general, FTA critics are SNS users and the supporters are readers of conservative newspapers.
Progressives are questioning whether Korea should continue neo-liberalist policies that have been proactively pursued since the 1997 financial crisis, which some argue stifled the continued development of democracy in Korea after the 1987 democratic uprising. The liberal leftists particularly heed the negative aspects of growth from the practice of the neo-liberalist market economy for the past 20 years, which widened the gap between the rich and poor.
The concept of the FTA no doubt originates from trade liberalization and free flow of capital. However, 2011 is different from 1997. The views that favored the unregulated capital market system have been undermined by the 2008 financial crisis, its consequences and the subsequent financial failures in Europe.
Although the progressives on the moderate and radical left all agree they have to achieve regime change in 2012, they differ on the idea of building a super single opposition party, which would be the best bet to beat the GNP in the two big elections next year. The DP may end up holding an integrated party convention with the People’s Participatory Party (PPP) in December. Yet, the two other progressive parties ― the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) and the Progressive Party (PP), which are in the process of a merger between themselves ― are not likely to join an integrated liberal party.
However, all these progressive parties agree on one common goal ― to replace the current conservative government with a liberal progressive administration. To this end, they are saying they would unite in support of a single opposition presidential candidate next year, although their competition for National Assembly seats is likely to complicate the joint effort for the presidential election.
The presidential election next year will be decided largely by economic issues that affect jobs, welfare and the livelihood of the people and less by the issues of peace and war, North Korea policy, the U.S.-Korea alliance, the rise of China or other foreign policy issues.
If a progressive government comes in, the issues of social and international fairness, as well as security and peace on the peninsula, involving the relationship between a rising China and the U.S.-Korea alliance will be fundamentally reexamined. What’s your take?
The writer is a visiting research professor at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.