What Kind of Democracy Is This in Korea?
By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist
Three events, one in the United States and two in Korea at the same time, have inspired me to raise the above question. The event in America is the news that comedian-turned-politician Al Franken has been declared the winner in a contested Senate race that gives the Democrats a 60-percent majority in the upper chamber.
Combined with the 59-percent majority in the House, the lower chamber, this happy occasion, the first in 31 years, makes the Democratic Party extremely happy but also worried about the backlash over having so much power in American politics as the combined strength can pass virtually any legislation it wishes.
In Korea, two interviews, both with top opposition (Minju) leaders, are reported in the media. One with the opposition party's minority leader in the National Assembly quotes him as saying that the power distribution in the National Assembly gives about 70 percent to the ruling party (GNP) and 30 percent to his own opposition party, referring to the National Assembly control of the GNP, but hopes that by the time of the election next year the gap would narrow to 50-50.
The other interview, this one with the president of the same opposition party, quotes him as saying that the opposition "would use physical force to contain the ruling party" in the latter's attempt to pass bills in the National Assembly.
What's so strange about these three reports should be obvious: In the United States, the ruling party says 60-percent control is worrisome because it is too much power and responsibility in one party. In Korea, one opposition leader acknowledges that the ruling side has 70 percent of national-political power; another opposition leader from the same party says they would use physical force to stop the 70-percent majority party. How is this possible?
By the standards of modern democratic politics, as demonstrated in the American example, controlling 70 percent of the nation's electoral power is close to absolute mandate. Any political party that gets 70 percent of popular mandate is likely to be close to dictatorship in power. At 60-percent, American politics is virtually mandated into the Democratic hands. In the past, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have controlled that much majority power in Congress. Even during the Gringrich-Republican triumph some years ago, the ruling party barely commanded a few votes over the majority.
A party that controls 70 percent of national power (especially so acknowledged by the opposition) should feel their strength on every level. Not only does the ruling party in Korea control 70 percent of the National Assembly seats, they also control the all-powerful presidency and most provincial governorships, city mayoralties and county headships.
In short, Korea is completely under the control of the ruling GNP, all obtained at the fairest election ever held in Korea. Its control is so great that even the opposition leadership concedes the level at 70 percent. It is quite puzzling that the ruling party with this much power and muscle, something most democracies of the world would envy, seems completely incapable of realizing its own political goal, which is to pass the laws and govern the nation.
One of the fundamental rules of democracy is that the majority rules. All a party needs is 50 percent of the vote, plus one. Out of 100 votes, the winner needs 50 plus one. Korea's ruling party has much more than the 50-plus-one vote.
Then why does the president of the opposition party vow to use physical force to stop the ruling party? Politics is invented so that we can avoid the pre-political form of power distribution, namely, the use of physical force to decide who gets what, which is the modern definition of body politic.
To summarize the democratic politics in the simplest terms possible: The spoils of power, and the ultimate popular judgment on them, go to the victor. The ruling party in Korea won its power on all levels, from presidency to country chiefs, fair and square, on a level that is quite remarkable for its strength and size. Why is it, then, that the ruling party is uncertain of its own legitimacy and that the opposition is not, which vows to use physical force to overturn this democratic mandate?
This brings us to a very odd nature of Korea's democratic politics and a very peculiar composition of Korea's collective personality. As is true in all societies, democratic politics is a public process, in which individuals form groups and parties, articulate their ideal goals and aspirations, and persuade others to join them on their utopian quest. There might be heroic personalities and charismatic leaders in this process, but it necessarily transcends the personal and the individual, by taking the participants up to the level of public processes and systems. But in Korea, all things in it, be they political, economic, cultural, psychological-sociological, legal or administrative, tend to be private-personal, not public. As such, all decisions in Korea are made from the emotional tug of heart, not through public debates or exchanges of ideas.
It is widely noted that Korea has no public in the sense there is an institutionalized level of movements and policies that are open to people attracted to such ideas and hopes. Virtually everything in Korea is private and personal in origin, slightly extended into clans and regional connections. In the absence of a public society, Korea is still a private-personal tribe that is at once subjective in shifts of moods and tugs of emotion and oriented to the forces of moments and situations, essentially non-rational, pre-modern and anti-utilitarian.
In Korea's society, lacking in universally objective criteria for rationality and technicality, everything begins and ends in the emotive-private sphere of feelings and reactions. Circles of identity, loyalty, and daily responses are ripples that extend from the private center, as an enlarged version of the self but never extending to the institutional or public whole. Thus, Korea's private society, as an ancient counterpart to a public society, works largely against what the ideological or policy structure of democracy requires.
In this "private politics of personal vortex," as an observer once described the Korean body politic, it matters little that the GNP actually controls 70-percent of national power in Korea.
The real loyalty of its members has little to do with the party's public platform or stated goals, but much with their own personal attachments and private loyalties to their own feelings and connections. The opposition party, recognizing this vacuum of vortex, feels it can attack the ruling party physically and with its better-organized emotional arsenal. So the whole picture in Korean politics can be simplified as a contest between size without substance and substance without size.
Most urgently, if Korea truly aspires to benefit from its modern aspirations and avoid the endless cycle of wasteful political confrontations, it needs to develop a public, a democratic, institutionalized model of society where rules and consensus, not just the private-emotional callings of the heart, are primary.
The famous Korean emotional energy, which has created so many dramatic and memorable moments in Korean history, should now be institutionalized into the Korean public or Korean policy. Then, Korea could honestly claim to have laid the cultural foundation for carrying on as a truly modern-democratic nation. Political passion is a wonderful thing to have, but it has to be subsumed under the larger demands of public rules and persuasive ideas.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com.