Left/right dichotomy belongs in the past

The 18th Republic of Korea presidential election will be held in South Korea on the 19th December 2012. It will be the sixth presidential election since democratization and the establishment of the Sixth Republic, and will be held under a first-past-the-post system.  Yet it seems, even at this late juncture, voters only have glimpses of the potential presidential contenders, and no perception of their real opinions or vision!

I read the Englishy Korea Herald every day and voters appear to have been forsaken to some extent in the midst of political stage management, without the debate of real issues taking centre stage.  It is well known that over the past five years under President Lee Myung Bak, household debt increased by 50 percent, while South Koreans’ real income growth was around 6 percent. In the midst of major political maneuvering an October poll by Seoul-based Realmeter put support for Moon Jae In at 22.1 percent, with ruling party candidate Park Geun Hye at 37 percent and Ahn Chul-soo at 28.6 percent. The survey of 3,000 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.8 percentage points. This differs from the survey from the 23rd September above with Mr. Ahn making a major move in the ratings.

Park, 60, is the eldest daughter of the late dictator Park Chung Hee and is seeking to become South Korea’s first female leader her nickname is “Queen of Elections”. “I understand that the end does not justify the means, I therefore apologise to the victims hurt by my father’s dictatorial rule in this regard.” She was taking the bull by the horns, addressing what her opponents and other critics have been trying to make the defining issue in the election. It’s amusing to note that she touts the Virgin Queen Bess who ruled England from 1558 to 1603 as a role model. “She saved her country from the verge of bankruptcy and turned it into a nation where the sun never set,” Ms. Park said. “Because she knew misfortune, she knew how to care for others.” Sick bag now!

Ms. Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, was the general who overthrew a freely elected government in 1961. General Park was not above imprisoning and torturing his opponents, especially during the days of the infamous Yushin constitution, which lasted from 1972 until his assassination in 1979 by Kim Jae-kyu, his security chief. In typical Korean “sit on the Gangnam fence” style the chief investigator Yi Hak-bong famously concluded that it was too careless for a deliberate act and yet too elaborate for an impulsive act. Decisons, Decisions! Maybe it was a crime of passion?

However Mr. Park was also the architect of the Korean model for development, which helped lift the nation out of poverty. Relatives of eight activists who were executed in 1975 (after being convicted, falsely, of breaking a national security law) retorted that Ms. Park is merely trying to better her odds of winning the election. His legacy is up for debate once again, brought on by the opening of the Park Chung-hee Memorial Centre in Seoul. The centre is a large complex detailing Park’s life and work as president. The memorial was more than 12 years in the making and cost more than US$15 million in taxpayer money. Democracy and human rights I have to be careful! 🙂

Ms. Park is also somewhat popular with the over 60’s post-war Boomers, who tend to recall her father affectionately, they obviously did not cross him. In April’s election, members of this group were 1.8 times more likely to vote than citizens in their 20s. The twenty something’s tend to prefer Ahn Chul-soo but there is a difference between liking a candidate and actually moving your ass to vote. Any candidate who can wake the 25 million Koreans who sleep through most of the day must have a good shot at winning. The reactions to her apology may be indifferent, but no one should doubt Ms Park’s capacity to make a strong showing with her cohorts of pensioners zimmer marching to the polling booths on Dec 19th.

Mr. Ahn is the founder of Ahnlab Inc., Sounds like an introduction to Iron Man. They are South Korea’s biggest antivirus software maker. The one-time medical doctor declared his presidential bid on September 19th. He is a vocal critic of the existing political parties, all mired in corruption scandals. Mr. Ahn appeals to young voters and urban professionals who care as much about welfare as about economic growth.  What looked like a pair of scandals flung at Mr. Ahn might also improve Ms. Park’s standing. On September 28th allegations surfaced that he fiddled with the tax bill attached to a property purchase of his; and, separately, that he may have plagiarised part of an academic paper. If these accusations stick, Mr. Ahn has a long way to fall: his status is owed in large part to his until now pious character.

Moon said his side would meet with the Ahn campaign to discuss details of a merger. Ahn said on October 7th it was presently “inappropriate” to confer about a union of forces with Moon. Jeong Han Wool, director of the Center for Public Opinion Research at East Asia Institute in Seoul has stated that “Accord on a single opposition candidate “could then turn into a variable and a force that could overpower Park.” The self styled Elizabethen may yet feel the sting in the scorpians tail.

Moon, the Liberal candidate, said a priority for him should he win office is protecting small and medium sized businesses by “drastically” boosting the powers of the Fair Trade Commission in its supervision of dealings between chaebols (conglomerates) and their suppliers. Moon would also address cross shareholdings that facilitate a chaebol chief being treated like “an emperor.” Popular opinion toward South Korea’s conglomerates, including the Samsung and Hyundai groups, has soured as the nation’s economic growth slowed and the wealth gap widened. The nation’s richest 20 percent earned 7.86 times more than those in the bottom 20 percent last year, the biggest margin since Statistics Korea began publishing the data in 2006.

While Moon pledged to ratify a law banning chaebols from certain industries to protect small businesses, he said that he understood the central role they play in economic development and that he wasn’t hostile to them. “Reforming chaebols is one of the most important aspects of democratizing the economy,” he said. “But there shouldn’t be anything done to abate the global competitiveness of chaebols, Samsung reported a record profit last week.

Moving away from the political arena and election campaign it’s interesting to review the mindset of Kim Byung-joon, Song Ho-keun and Kim Sang-jo, 3 political commentators.

They all walk dissimilar paths. Kim Byung-joon served as the chief of policy planning in the Roh Moo-hyun Blue House. Song, a sociologist, taught in a university and is a writer of columns and books. Economist Kim Sang-jo gave lectures and worked as the head of the Solidarity for Economic Reform. None of them is affiliated to any presidential campaign.  Kim Byung-joon’s “There is No President for the 99 Percent,” Song’s “Moving Beyond the Society of Dichotomy,” and Kim Sang-jo’s “Meaning and Tasks for Economic Democratization” are thoughtful tomes the voters in Korea should read. They are accessible to the majority.

Kim Byung-joon starts his book talking about “useless knowledge.” Koreans are divided into set camps, they believe in many fixed ideals, but Kim presents real cases to prove that these mindsets were in fact useless and wrong. Receptive readers would have to re-consider their current standpoints.

Song begins his book with the sentence, “Are you being confused?” He begins with a diagnosis that people must feel confused about where to position themselves in society because the society endlessly asks them which side they are on.

Kim Sang-jo explains economic democratization by saying, “Efforts to define the substantial contents of economic democratization must be warned against.” The starting point of his thesis is skepticism about both the ruling and opposition parties’ pledges about economic democratization. They sound as if they are having a true competition. Kim reveals the mistake in that idea. He actually gives a clearer idea about economic democratization and what it must involve.

They are experts in three different fields and they have long experiences and clear ideas. Why are they so similar in the views, why are they batting for the same team? The reason is in Song’s book’s title. The scholars share the views that Korean society can only move forward into the future when it overcomes the dichotomy of the left and the right, the conservatives and the liberals. Whilst policies are muddled and unclear it is difficult for any voter youthful or aging to decide who will cement their vote.  Instead of talking about what he or she will do, presidential campaigns are dominated by slogans to “unite and win.” As long as politicians attack an opponent and attract votes by prompting rage, we won’t have a true leader (or president) to change the status quo and the world we inhabit, Kim Byung-joon concluded.

Kim Sang-jo refused to be the spokesman for any side. He said treating economic democratization as a subject of a huge discussion involving the public, or a goal to be achieved, won’t bring about actual change. He said it could even be dangerous. Kim Sang-jo’s arguments are also focused on how, and not what, and he also believes a common territory based on tolerance can be found.

Then what is the answer? Song has the idea of creating a joint buffer zone between the left and the right. It will be the zone for real gains and public interest and not ideology. It will be a zone to push forward politics to create jobs, which are a must to realize welfare and economic democratization and to share and keep those jobs. To build the zone, we must think about a coalition government. This is a view I share, in the UK health and education policy should have a 20 not 5 year time frame and should not be in a state of flux. No one benefits from short-termism but they would benefit from strong coherent cross party policies.

Kim Byung-joon’s idea of tolerance is on the same wavelength. He proposes a real contemplation based on tolerance toward other thoughts and other sides.  What will the candidates present to the voters? Kim Byung-joon ends his book by saying “the people are the messiah.” He says hope lies with an increase of people who stay alert on the issues of growth, wealth polarization and welfare.

Song also puts high hopes on the choice of the voters. “How to solve the problem is a matter of choice. It is not the choice of politicians but the choice of the voters and the people. Instead of letting the politicians, obsessed with ideologies, confuse us, we must hand down our choices to them.” We can only become voters rich with choices when we become thoughtful voters. Let’s read other people’s thoughts and polish our own. We must warn against clear-cut, simple and useless knowledge and overcome the national tendency to dichotomy and seek common ground.

What I find interesting is the policies they will adopt towards “unification” with North Korea. A “strong Korea” seems to me to mean an “independent Korea.” While there is a lot of support for the US-ROK alliance, I can see across the board committed support for a more independent Korea. This is certainly true for people in their 20s. For this age group, they know no other strong regional power in the way their parents and grandparents did. The idea of a strong Japan is lost on them, they have lived through Japans tigerless last decade. China, whilst an economic power, is not perceived to be as industrially and technologically advanced young people’s perception of what Korea is and represents is much different from that of past generations. The 2002 World Cup and 2010 World Athletics Championships in Daegu were the catalysts for younger Koreans developing this view. This perception is remoulding the way younger Koreans view themselves and is redefining Korean identity. This is an obvious reason why generation gaps feel so large and discernible in South Korea. People in their 50s and 60s are, of course, Korean, but they are fundamentally different from younger Koreans in thought and identity due largely to significantly different experience, politically and socially. For the youngest generation in Korea, it is taken for granted that Korea is a strong and prosperous nation. At least in Seoul if not the backwaters of Chungju!

Politically speaking, everyone will tell you the 20s are the important voters. Of course, this depends largely on voter turnout. In any case, we already know who the people in their 50s and 60s are voting for, the conservative candidate, the queen of elections. Worldwide, older age groups have a higher voter turnout than younger voters. Now, if people in their 20s and 30s turn out to vote, a majority would cast for Ahn Chul-soo. So that basically leaves people in their 40s; they are the political unknowns, the “difference makers.” In the three-candidate race, the 40s are essentially evenly split between Park Gun-hye and Ahn Chol-soo. If you then narrow it down to a head-to-head between Ahn and Park, Ahn has a 15-20 point lead. So, you could say that the “relatively aged” are the most important.

In North Korea the media has been attacking the current presidents “confrontational” policy and last week, Pyongyang sent balloons across the heavily fortified border, which carried scores of leaflets in which it berated Seoul’s Defence Ministry for strengthened troop education against pro-North Korean activities.  Recently a string of North Korean fishing boats violated the Northern Limit Line, an inter-Korean sea border, this put South Korean troops on alert, causing Seoul to characterize the boats as “planned provocations” to affect the political tide here.  “What is clear is that the North intends to swing the political pendulum here to its advantage and in favour of the main opposition Democratic United Party, pursuing reconciliation and coöperation,” said Ahn Chan-il, director of the World North Korea Research Center.  “Should the North cause some tension (to affect voters anxious about strained ties), it could work positively for the liberal opposition camp.”

Who would you vote for?

This election coincides with the growing of “brand” Korea which has been so significant for the departing president. Psy’s Gangnam hit is just the hottest accomplishment for the Hallyu, or “Korean wave”. In September, Pieta was the first Korean film to win the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, while Shin Kyung-sook’s novel Please Look After Mother became a global bestseller this year.  In industry Samsung Electronics is battling with Apple for dominance of the Smartphone market, they sold up to 20m units of their Galaxy SIII phone in the past three months. Hyundai is gradually working its way up the automotive brand ladder; commentators have suggested it is beginning to see its finest models as straight competitors for Audi and BMW.

Korean and Asian analysts bicker (quiet rightly in my opinion) that broader social and economic problems are holding back the country’s creative industries and one might also argue skills and crafts. In this society where academic success (or mastery of memory) is greatly respected, in the region of 80 per cent of young people go to university: it may be suggested that this is a “waste of time” for creative talents and trades for whom it negates the opportunity to develop their skills.

The film industry is subjugated by the chaebol conglomerates, its therefore difficult for independent film-makers to acquire funding or persuade cinemas to screen their films. It appears the entire film-making process, from production through distribution to sales, is dominated by the chaebol, which discourages reasonable competition.

One has to conclude that artistic, free-thinking citizens are in a minority here but perhaps also hope their vote may have an influence on December 19th.  There seems to be a universal accord on the need for real transformation in the modern political system in Korea: changes in campaign rules and financing, changes in the selection process of political candidates and changes in the party platform are a few examples. With reference to the credentials of presidential and legislative candidates, the public expects leaders who possess the aptitude to move the country to enhanced prosperity. The people of Korea need leaders with clear vision; and leaders who are cogent, future oriented and global minded. The dichotomy between left and right is a device that was an ingenuous doctrine developed to eliminate political opponents in the eras of Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. After several decades, this dichotomy still exists.

It seems to me it’s all style over substance. In this Confucian, hierarchical society where it seems free thinking is discouraged and seen as radical it is unlikely that this will happen in the short to medium term.  It appears that (as in the UK) it’s not what you know but who you know and how much you have, in a financial rather than cerebral sense.

My vote goes to!

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