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[Herald Interview] 'Fandom politics must end to protect representative democracy'

Outgoing Speaker Kim Jin-pyo embarks on his new mission to address S. Korea’s low birth rate

By Cho Chung-un, Jung Min-kyung, Kim Arin

Published : May 30, 2024 - 14:54

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Kim Jin-pyo speaks in an interview with The Korea Herald on Wednesday, his last day as the speaker of the 21st National Assembly, at his office in Seoul. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Kim Jin-pyo speaks in an interview with The Korea Herald on Wednesday, his last day as the speaker of the 21st National Assembly, at his office in Seoul. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Article 1 of South Korea’s National Assembly Act states that the parliament is a representative body of the people. However, Kim Jin-pyo, the speaker of the 21st National Assembly and a political heavyweight with 50 years in public service, views the widespread phenomenon of fandom politics as a major obstacle to the country's representative democracy. He believes this trend is the primary cause of increasing political confrontations, which continue to undermine the spirit of compromise and dialogue, and hinder the advancement of Korean politics.

“South Korea currently faces a crisis regarding the Assembly representing the democracy,” the five-term lawmaker said in an interview with The Korea Herald at the National Assembly in Yeouido, Seoul, on his last day as Assembly speaker Wednesday.

“Because politicians today focus too much on securing a fan base and supporters through extreme ways, the plenary sessions and standing committee meetings are now abused as a platform to rally their fans. This undermines the original purpose of the Assembly itself, which is to join heads to resolve the issues of public livelihoods through discussion and mutual concede,” he added.

The rise of social media and several star politicians’ moves to vilify its opponents has exacerbated the culture of fandom politics in Korea, which has become a major risk to representative democracy, according to Kim.

“The easiest way for politicians to secure a fan base is to vilify their opponents. With the public actively involved in social media, it also makes it easy for such fandoms to come together.”

The biggest regret throughout his term as the Assembly speaker was failing to bring about reform to the current electoral system, Kim said. The reform would be a resolution to the existing risks that weigh on the country’s representative democracy.

“The problem with the current electoral system was well-reflected in the latest April 10 general election,” the now-former Assembly speaker noted.

“The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea defeated the ruling People Power Party by a 5.4 percentage point margin. This means that some 45 percent of the entire vote was ignored and wasted … It means that the current electoral system goes against its most important principle which is to uphold the principles of proportionality and representation of the entire public.”

Korea’s economy and society achieved rapid growth in recent decades, but its politics have failed to match the same level of growth, Kim lamented.

“When Korea was under military dictatorship (from 1963 to around 1988), the main opposition’s only option was to carry out a fierce boycott and protest -- it was ‘all or nothing’ for politicians who were going against the government during that era.”

Kim said that the continuation of such political spirit has ironically led to a failure in compromise and partnership between the rival parties.

“If you look closely at the 10 bills railroaded by the Democratic Party, passed by the opposition-led Assembly to only be vetoed by President Yoon Suk Yeol, five or six of them actually had the potential to become a proper legislation. The scrapped bills actually carried ideas that the rival parties could both agree on.”

“The politics in Korea must follow a step-by-step procedure like (the Assembly) in many developed countries do, but it seems now not only the opposition but even the ruling party has exploited the tactic of ‘all or nothing,' a strategy that was effective during the military regime.”

Despite his concerns and regrets, Kim’s two years as the presiding officer of the Assembly were also filled with hopes and new milestones, as his face lit up explaining the progress in interparliamentary exchange with the US.

“It was unbelievable how we had such exchanges with Japan, but not with the US, which has been our greatest ally and continues to be,” he said.

Kim pointed to the launch of the Korea Interparliamentary Exchange Center in Washington, only 3 kilometers away from Capital Hill, in April this year, as a sign of a deeper bilateral alliance between the Korean and the US legislative bodies.

And it all started with an episode involving former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her love of kimchi, during her visit to Korea in August 2022, which became even more evident during her meeting with Kim.

“When Pelosi met me (back in 2022) she was an hour late to our meeting because of traffic congestion,” Kim reminisced.

“I’ve heard she loved kimchi so we had prepared several sample dishes of different types of kimchi at the meeting. She seemed hungry and by the end of my opening remark which lasted some three minutes, she had finished the entire dishes of kimchi.”

Kim Jin-pyo poses for a photo ahead of interview with The Korea Herald on Wednesday, his last day as the speaker of the 21st National Assembly, at his office in Seoul. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Kim Jin-pyo poses for a photo ahead of interview with The Korea Herald on Wednesday, his last day as the speaker of the 21st National Assembly, at his office in Seoul. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Kim said that the episode highlighted the start of a new round of discussions regarding the Korea-US interparliamentary alliance, with Pelosi that exact day.

The incoming 22nd National Assembly here, whose term kicked off Thursday, would be where the interparliamentary alliance officially launches, said Kim. The resolution to officially form the alliance was passed with bipartisan cooperation at the Assembly in February.

As a new chapter in his career was about to begin, Kim said he plans to launch a think tank dedicated to finding solutions to major challenges to the human population, including the declining birth rate here.

Korea's total fertility rate, or the average number of children expected to be born to a woman over her lifetime, hit a record low of 0.72 in 2023, one of the lowest in the world, government data showed. The figure is far below the 2.1 births per woman required to maintain a stable population without immigration.

"I've spent 30 years as a bureaucrat and 20 years as a politician -- it was both a blessing and an opportunity to experience many things. So I started thinking about what I should do after this and decided to begin a new journey to find a solution for the country's low birth rate," he said, revealing the organization's name as Global Innovation Studies.

Kim said that consistent implementation of long-term policies coupled with solid immigration policies is now crucial in resolving the population crisis that Asia's fourth-largest economy currently faces.

"It is important to help millennials and Generation Z (born between 1980 and 2010) to think that having a child would bring happiness and success to their lives. The Global Innovation Studies would be a way for me to help the next generation of politicians and bureaucrats to steer the national tasks the right way."

Born in Yeonbaek County, which is now North Korean territory, in 1947, Kim moved to South Korea with his father and settled in Seoul's satellite city of Suwon, following the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War. He began his career as a civil servant at a regional office of the National Tax Service after passing the state exam in 1974.

He served as Minister for Government Policy Coordination under former President Kim Dae-jung from July 2002 to February 2003. Under former President Roh Moo-hyun, he served as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and Economy from March 2003 to February 2004.

He entered politics and the National Assembly in 2004, by representing his hometown of Suwon and was later elected as the National Assembly speaker in July 2022. Throughout his political career, he has always been a member of the liberal Democratic Party and its predecessors, but has consistently expressed relatively moderate views.

He earned his Bachelor of Laws from the prestigious Seoul National University and Master of Public Affairs from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.