[Column] Once a model democracy, Korea’s governing system is seriously unwell

Posted on : 2023-09-21 16:40 KST Modified on : 2023-09-21 16:40 KST
Yoon’s “Yongsan totalitarianism” is a threat to Korean democracy
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a Cabinet meeting held at the presidential office in Yongsan on May 23. (presidential office pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a Cabinet meeting held at the presidential office in Yongsan on May 23. (presidential office pool photo)
By Hwang Joon-bum, politics editor

Early last year, I interviewed Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm. One year into the Biden presidency, the US was still reeling from Trump supporters’ raid on the US Capitol, and the country remained torn by serious distrust and division.

Americans shouldn’t be trying to teach other countries about democracy when half of Americans believe the election was stolen from Trump, Bremmer observed, adding that the US ought to be importing democracy, not exporting it.

The election of a demagogue like Trump as president in November 2016 left the US in shock. There was much reflection on how that could have happened to the US, a country with a proud democratic tradition.

In their book “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both professors of political science at Harvard University, sought causes and solutions in a number of countries that have experienced the collapse of democratic institutions, including Germany, Italy and Venezuela.

Nowadays, I often find myself returning to this book here in Korea, which has been regarded as a paragon of democracy by American strategists and scholars.

In an age where the overt demolition of democracy — through a coup d'état, for example — is no longer very common, the authors focus on how democracy can implode from within. They see the critical norms, or guardrails, for democracy as being “mutual toleration” and “institutional forbearance.”

Mutual toleration is political parties’ willingness to recognize the legitimacy of views that are different from their own. Institutional forbearance is the judicious exercise of one’s legal rights through continuing self-control, restraint and patience.

Simply put, toleration and forbearance can be seen as cultural standards or common-sense norms that we trust others to be capable of following. But once those basic norms have collapsed, democracy tends to collapse along with it, the authors argue.

This neatly maps onto the current situation in Korea. Toleration and forbearance have long been absent from Korean politics. The president and ruling party view the opposition party as a target to be eliminated and repeatedly blame problems on the “former administration.”

In the eyes of Korea’s current head of state, President Yoon Suk-yeol, the leader of the opposition party is only a criminal suspect who has never once been a potential partner for dialogue.

The person who made an uppercut his signature gesture in his presidential campaign is now taking the lead in identifying the next target of attack in crude language, directing his aides and ministers to the line of battle.

When the administration is thwarted by laws, it finds a workaround through enforcement orders, and the president is also quick to exercise his veto power on bills passed by the National Assembly.

When the president’s appointees are found wanting in hearings at the National Assembly, the president feels no compunction about ramming through their appointments despite strong public disapproval.

In turn, the opposition party has grown harsher in its rhetoric. Relying on its majority in the National Assembly, it has started playing hardball, appointing special prosecutors, launching parliamentary probes and passing motions of dismissal against various officials.

Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung’s hunger strike is a dramatic example of Korea’s political reality in the absence of toleration and forbearance. Despite controlling a majority in the National Assembly, the head of the opposition party has resorted to radical non-parliamentary measures, while the ruling party has ignored or even mocked him, without a single party member paying him a personal visit to even give the appearance of asking him to call off the strike.

Yoon says that “anti-state forces that blindly follow communist totalitarianism, distort public opinion, and disrupt the society through manipulative propaganda” are on the loose.

“Communist totalitarianism” is a term of uncertain origins, even academically speaking. So I suppose there’s no reason we can’t label the current administration as representing “Yongsan totalitarianism.”

The primary figure in Yongsan totalitarianism is the president himself, of course. Under the banner of “freedom,” the president has divided the nation and placed the country’s foreign policy on a US-oriented line as part of his purely black-and-white mindset.

The president stands on the front lines of ideological disputes and historical debates, seeking to erase the legacy of the independence movement against Japan on the grounds that some freedom fighters had communist sympathies.

All media outlets, opposition parties and civic groups that criticize the government are branded as “anti-state forces,” with the public prosecutors and the Board of Audit and Inspection serving as effective weapons toward that end.

The president doesn’t respect the National Assembly and circumvents it using his legal prerogatives to veto laws and make appointments.

The ruling party that ought to be providing balance between the president and the public has been reduced to a presidential lackey, forfeiting its relevance and independence.

Yongsan totalitarianism is a threat to democracy. It’s become common for not only politicians of all stripes but even ordinary people to talk about “the worst politics in history.” But what they’re really saying is that Korean democracy is seriously unwell.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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