Restoring trust, key to progress in Korean politics in 2012
Published : Jan 8, 2012 - 15:47
Updated : Jan 8, 2012 - 15:47
Korea needs richer social capital, enhanced ethics for mature legislature: analysts

The following is the second of a series of articles on Korean politics of 2012, an election year when general and presidential elections are taking place in the same year for the first time since 1992. -- Ed.

By Kim Yoon-mi

Ko Young-eun, a 30-year-old office worker living in Seoul with his wife and a baby daughter, is waiting for the April 11 general elections.

Disenchanted with lawmakers slinging mud at one another and railroading bills through the National Assembly last year amid shouting and finger pointing, Ko has given up hope in establishment politics. In his eyes, Korean politics seems hopeless and it will be almost impossible for the politicians to win back the trust of voters like him.

As his frustration grew, so did his expectations for the general elections in April and the presidential election in December

“In hindsight, Korean people have come here step by step. Elections results are definitely an indicator telling us whether Korean politics will move forward or backward,” Ko told The Korea Herald.

“If Korean voters make the right choices this time, they will learn a lesson from all the wrongs that politicians have done so far. I see hope there.”

The loss of trust in social systems is cited as the most troubling problem in Korean politics by most analysts, who predict the future will vary based on trust in system.

A survey by Korea University professor Park Jong-min last year showed the Koreans regarding their nation as the most democratic in Asia but trusted their legislature and political parties the least.

Only 7 percent of Koreans trusted the National Assembly and 9 percent had confidence in political parties, while 17 percent of the Japanese had trust in the legislative body and 16 percent put faith in political parties, the survey showed.

“Crisis in party politics is not a problem particular to Korea. It is a worldwide phenomenon, as conflicts of interests are ever increasing between individual voters and political parties,” said Shin Yul, politics professor at Myongji University.

“Korea faces an additional serious problem, that is an anemic social capital. Social capital is an important gauge of public trust in system. It cannot be accumulated in a short period,” he said.

People tend to predict the future in light of a trust-based system, he said, but Korean politicians are very good at breaking promises and changing policy stances too often, eroding public trust.

Unless the Korean society builds a “rational trust” in politics, a mere change alone of president or lawmakers in 2012 will fail to advance politics much, he said.

The National Assembly of Korea has gained an ill fame for ugly partisan scuffles which always happen whenever rival parties clash over high-stakes bills, such as the budget. Quite often, unseemly scenes of punching and kicking are broadcast at home and beyond.

Last month, the Supreme Court convicted Rep. Kang Ki-gap, leader of the minor opposition Unified Progressive Party, for the obstruction of parliamentary business.

Kang was ordered to pay 3 million won in fines for grabbing a parliamentary guard by the collar and destroying property of the National Assembly at its secretary-general’s office in 2009. At the time, he was protesting the passage of the revised Media Law, which allowed newspaper publishers to launch broadcasting networks. An angry Kang jumped on a table in the secretary-general’s office in the Assembly, earning a nickname of “yogic flier.”

“Legislature violence exemplifies how far behind Korean politics lags. Not only Korean citizens but also the media have persistently urged lawmakers to change their way of doing politics but they have rarely changed,” said Lee Chung-hee, political science professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

“Through the upcoming general elections, Korean voters should vote out those violent lawmakers and bring a wind of change into the National Assembly,” he said.

In November, the National Assembly wrote another chapter in its shameful history, inviting mockery from around the world. A minority party lawmaker exploded a tear gas canister in the main hall to deter the ruling party lawmakers from voting on the free trade agreement with the U.S. The unprecedented action by Rep. Kim Sun-dong of the Democratic Labor Party disgraced Korean democracy.

In December 2008, lawmakers and their aides broke the locked door of the National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee conference room, using sledgehammers and fire extinguishers, to block its vote on the U.S. FTA.

Lee said the Special Committee on Ethics of the National Assembly should strengthen related measures to prevent violence in the Assembly.

Shin pointed out that lawmakers use violence “not because they are bad people but because Korean society allows it emotionally.”

“Korean people’s attitudes towards politics are too simple-minded and too emotional, which forces lawmakers to recognize the other party as a target to be eliminated, not a target of negotiation,” Shin said.

According to Shin, this kind of emotional interpretation of politics has led to the explosive popularity of “Naneun Ggomsuda (I am a slacker),” an anti-government podcast.

Choi Jin, professor at Korea University, said distrust in politics derives from two factors in Korea -- people’s anger and disappointment with the existing politicians and their aspiration for transition to an economy-based society from a politics-based society.

“Korea is in an ambiguous position where it is neither an advanced country nor a developing one. People expect that their livelihoods should be better secured but their expectations were not met at all last year,” Choi said.

“Candidates for the next Assembly should know that they need an economic blueprint with which to convince the Korean people that their economic problems and community issues can be resolved, regardless of their political views.”