What is the 'Fundamental Solution' to the Political Malaise?

      June 16, 2009 13:07

      In his biweekly radio address, just before leaving for the United States, President Lee Myung-bak said a "fundamental remedy" was needed to deal with the endemic problems of Korean politics. "Public sentiment is still divided by ideologies and regions," he said. "Corruption by those in power endlessly repeats itself. The bad habit of political strife, where people unconditionally object what the other side says, continues to thrive." He said he was contemplating what needs to be done to overcome these problems. "I will continue to listen to various opinions and decide what must be done."

      Lee did not specify what his "fundamental remedy" is. Many people agree that we can no longer afford to neglect the endemic problems of Korean politics, which is deeply divided by ideology and regionalism and is fixated on radical struggle.

      The "fundamental remedy" envisaged by the president could be a full-scale reshuffle of officials in the ruling party, government ministries and Cheong Wa Dae. Major reshuffles have certainly been effective in soothing public sentiment. But practically every administration has reshuffled key officials whenever it faced a crisis, and Korean politics has been characterized by a vicious cycle of crises triggering reshuffles. The president himself recently referred to them as remnants of old-style politics.

      Everyone knows what the fundamental root of the problems facing this society is. A long history of regionalism has been at the center of all of our problems. After every presidential election, a fierce battle erupted between those in power and those who radically resisted that power.

      Some people in the ruling political camp say a revision of the Constitution is the only way to resolve the problems caused by regionalism and the concentration of power in the top office. National Assembly Speaker Kim Hyong-o proposed to discuss a constitutional revision starting on July 17, Constitution Day. Quite a few lawmakers feel that Korea should shift from a presidential system of government to a parliamentary one. But revising the Constitution is no easy task. All political parties must approve it and the process of revision could end up causing other urgent issues to be put on the back burner.

      What must precede any discussion of a revision is to look at how the present system of government is operated. The success or failure of any system depends on how it is operated. Lee came to power after capturing a relatively large number of votes even in South Jeolla Province, the core supporting region of the previous liberal governments. But he drew criticism for favoring people according to their place of birth when he appointed his first Cabinet and ended up sowing the seeds of regional strife. And problems over the concentration of power at the top office emerged because of the perceived actions of people close to the president, so we cannot simply blame the system for being the root of all of our problems.

      If the president is thinking about a fundamental remedy, his administration must think about what it can do first. Only then will the public begin to scrutinize the forces who make it a habit of unconditionally objecting to what the other side says.

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