Crisis of Democracy in Korea
By Tong Kim
The relentless candlelit demonstration is on its 52nd day in a row at this writing, and unfortunately it is turning violent. We have seen dangerous clashes between angry demonstrators and the police, yet nobody seems to have a good solution to end the populist anti-government protest that started after the government agreed to allow American beef imports.
The street demonstrations have seemed to have effectively paralyzed the normal functioning of a representative government ― with the new 18th-term National Assembly several weeks overdue for convening and the administration's cabinet in limbo for 20 days now since its submission of resignations en masse. The roads to the Blue House are blocked and the presidential residence is heavily guarded every night.
During the height of the candlelit demonstration, when hundreds of thousands of people across the country took to the streets to demand the safety of imported U.S. beef, the protests were hailed as the revival of ``direct participatory democracy" or a new form of ``cyber democracy" that would have a direct impact on government decisions.
After President Lee Myung-bak's government lost the confidence of the people following a series of mishaps from the ``mad cow" issue, which was obviously the immediate cause of public outcry, the president personally apologized twice to the nation and replaced most of his senior secretaries at the Blue House. Lee admitted that his government failed to communicate with the people. He is yet to carry out a cabinet reshuffle. These are impressive results of the people's demands.
However, the more fundamental problem for the president was a refusal to recognize the changes that have taken place for better or worse in Korea in the last 10 years. Some changes are good: some are bad. For instance, continued economic growth, democratic development, improved inter-Korean relations, and Korea's increased role in the international arena are good, but persisting regional and ideological divide, insensible security complacency, and the negative and apathetic attitude toward the United States ― especially among the younger generations ― are bad.
The government's agenda of ``restoring" the ROK-U.S. alliance was misconceived due to the absence of an overall foreign policy goal designed to protect and pursue the best interests of Korea in a constantly changing world order. Its agenda for the alliance should have been to ``restore bilateral trust" and to continue to transform the security alliance. Instead of seeking a nebulous concept of ``strategic alliance," Lee's foreign policy team should have pursued a separate but new ``global partnership" with the United States, to pay its dues and to bear an affordable share of contribution to transnational issues ― such as peace keeping operations, war on terrorism and global warming.
In designing this approach, they should have carefully considered its potential impact on China, Japan and North Korea. Unnecessary overemphasis on the strategic U.S.-ROK alliance could backfire, as did Roh Moo-hyun's idea of Korea's balancing role in Northeast Asia. Contrary to its intention, the Lee government ironically seems to have undermined the support of the Korean people for a strengthened alliance with the United States by mishandling the beef issue.
In this regard, the cancellation of President Bush's visit to Seoul originally expected early next month is a wise decision to avoid a likely anti-American demonstration, which would only embarrass both Lee and Bush. The Grand National Party's floor leader of the National Assembly has defined the recent candlelit protests as ``anti-American demonstration" instigated by ``professional protesters using violence." No doubt anti-American elements are among the protesters. But the majority of the demonstrators are more anti-government than anti-American.
A diplomatic success brings little positive impact on domestic politics, whereas a diplomatic failure ― such as the decision to open Korea's market to U.S. beef imports ― could bring about a devastating political fiasco. Lee's recent visit to China, though successful in general, did not improve his political standing at home. Likewise, a scheduled sideline meeting between Lee and Bush during the G-8 meeting in Japan is not likely to benefit the Korean president for domestic politics. All politics is local, a lesson that President Lee should ponder upon.
North Korea has demolished the cooling tower of the disabled Yongbyon nuclear reactor as a symbolic gesture demonstrating its commitment to denuclearizatioin after submitting an ```incomplete" declaration that excluded information on the nuclear weapons it has produced, the uranium enrichment program it is believed to have pursued and its transfer of nuclear technology to Syria. Although Phase III negotiations ― for verification measures for the declaration and further dismantlement of the nuclear programs and facilities, as well as removal of plutonium and nuclear devices ― will soon begin, they are not likely to be concluded this year. In other words, it will be turned over to the next U.S. administration.
The problem for Seoul is that the North is ignoring the South, while talking primarily to Washington, a situation Seoul is trying to prevent. Pyongyang did not even respond to Seoul's offer of 50,000 tons of corn to help relive the food shortage in the North. The Lee government has no new position on inter-Korean relations other than sticking to the ``denuclearization and opening vision 3000," which the North has turned down as an ``insult to the DPRK." This is not a good situation for Seoul to be in.
The people elected Lee president believing or hoping that he would do better than his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun and would build a better economy for their welfare. The majority of the people were not interested in the issues of foreign policy or inter-Korean relations during the last presidential election. Their priority is still the economy.
For a while the demonstration seemed to dwindle after a supplementary negotiation with Washington that yielded an arrangement to insure against imports of beef older than 30 months and Specified Risk Material (SRM) of all ages and to strengthen inspection measures. When the government announced its import protocols, that started to put American beef on the market, the heat of demonstration was rekindled though much smaller in the number of participants but more determined to fight the government action, still demanding renegotiation.
The opposition Democratic Party, refusing to return to the parliament, has decided to join in the candlelit protests, while the Grand National Party is threatening to unilaterally organize and convene the new National Assembly without the participation of the opposition party. A renewed ideological polarization between the conservative right and the progressive left is sharpening.
There are national leaders or elder statesmen to whom the divided people would listen. The media is also divided between the conservative papers ― mainly Chosun, Dong-A, and JoongAng ― and left leaning television stations ― MBC and KBS backed by Hankyeoreh and Kyonghyang. Any Blue House attempt to control or manipulate the press would not succeed.
In short, Korean democracy is in crisis. For the nation to extricate from this crisis without suffering irreparable damage and to find a way forward to domestic tranquility and economic prosperity, the president must exercise calm and strong political leadership as he makes a tough choice from several options. His number one job is to lead the nation. 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.