When a peaceful transition of power from the Park Geun-hye government to the Moon Jae-In government was successfully completed, following Park’s impeachment and the presidential election within a short period without any violent confrontation between the pro-Park conservative forces and the anti-Park liberal forces, the world, particularly the Western democratic world, was quite impressed. This was mainly because a divided and newly independent non-Western state had not only successfully overcome underdevelopment, but also firmly consolidated Western democracy. The US, which has been closely watching Korean democracy, may even envy Korea’s democracy.
But Koreans should realize that democracy has not been firmly rooted in Korean culture. There are invisible cultural traits which undermine the democratic foundation. They are Korean-style McCarthyism, regionalism and factionalism.
McCarthyism originated in the US during the early period of the Cold War (1947-56). In March 1947, President Truman issued an executive order that all federal civil service employees be screened for “loyalty.” A person was judged disloyal if he or she sought to alter the form of the government by unconstitutional means. Sen. McCarthy broadened the meaning and accused anybody opposed to his red-scare anti-communist tactics. During this red scare period, many intellectuals and artists suffered.
Extreme conservatives in Korea tend to accuse extreme liberals of being pro-communist, or call them “Chinbukpa” (a pro-North Korean clique). They either do not know the difference between liberalism (or radicalism) and communism, or intentionally accuse liberals of being communists or pro-North Koreans.
These Korean McCarthyists should know that, in a democracy, all political ideologies, including communism, enjoy equal rights. This is why communist parties are legal in democratic states as long as they do not intend to overthrow a non-communist government by force.
Only in Korea are communist parties banned, because the Republic of Korea in the South was established to reject the communist state in the North. This is why the anti-communist law is considered legal and necessary. Therefore, if conservatives reject anti-conservatives such as liberals, progressives and social democrats, they are anti-democratic. If this kind of Korean-style McCarthyism prevails, Korean democracy cannot be safe.
Regionalism has existed in Korea since time immemorial. But it has become highly politicized since the Park Chung-hee government. In the late 1960s, Park began to favor the Yongnam region and discriminate against the Honam region in terms of personnel appointments and promotions in public organizations and economic benefits for corporations and governmental economic development programs. These regionalist practices have gradually penetrated into other areas of public life.
Even after the reign of Park in 1979, regionalism has not only survived but also become a way of life. Successive governments, whether conservative or progressive, have failed to eradicate regionalism, although all of them have pledged to do so. Regionalism in Korea has a stark similarity to racism in the US. Both are taboo in their respective countries: People do not publicly talk about them but they are unable to overcome their prejudice. Democracy is undermined by regionalism, mainly because regionalism penetrates into, blocks, and distorts the democratic political processes: interest groups and nongovernmental organizations; political parties; political debates; and the three branches of government. The impact of regionalism is more severe in the presidential and national assembly elections. If regionalism goes to an extreme, a state can disintegrate: A substantial number of states in Europe and Africa are on the verge of disintegration because of separatist movements.
Factionalism is the third disease threatening Korean democracy. In a democracy power competition is conducted through the power struggle among political parties.
In exemplary democracies the primary function of a political party is to represent and articulate the demands of certain interest groups and nongovernmental organizations. But Korean political parties resemble the factions in the Joseon era rather than political parties in the West. During the Joseon era, “bungdang” politics emerged in the King Sunjo period (1567-1608). There were two bungdangs, or factions: the Easterners (Dongin) and Westerners (Seoin). The Easterners later split into the Northerners (Bukin) and Southerners (Namin). During the King Injo period (1623-1649), the Westerners split into the Patriarchs (Noron) and Disciples (Soron). This bungdang politics continued until the last days of the Joseon era.
Bungdang politics was actually a power struggle between two or more personal groups for the control of the state. Modern Korean political parties started as bungdangs rather than ordinary political parties and have become more factional since the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. The Liberty Korea Party and Bareun Party are the pro- and anti-Park Geun-hye conservative factions, respectively, while the People’s Party and Democratic Party of Korea look like the pro-Ahn Cheol-su faction and the pro-Roh Moo-hyun factions, respectively. Unless and until Korean parties truly become Western style-political parties, Korean democracy will not be safe.
The Moon government has the mandate to root out the above three sources of threat to democracy. To eradicate McCarthyism, it should make every effort to separate true democrats -- conservative and liberal -- from the real communists and North Korea sympathizers so that true liberals can become freer than ever before.
To eradicate regionalism, it should realize true, not fake, tangpyeongchaek (a policy of balance favoring no faction over another). It should transform the Democratic Party to a true Western-style political party. It should always bear in mind that it cannot replace existing harmful national policies completely with new ones during its own tenure, but it can build a firm foundation for them.
Korean politicians, right and left, should never forget that Korean democracy has been protected and restored by college students through their blood, sweat and tears in the 1960, 1980 and 1987 demonstrations.
By Park Sang-seek
Park Sang-seek is a former rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University and the author of “Globalized Korea and Localized Globe.” -- Ed.