Tragedy of South Korea’s ‘prison politics’

Park Jung-won

Members of South Korea’s National Assembly enjoy considerable privileges and benefits. For those who decide to pursue politics, the easiest (and usually only) way to enter the National Assembly is to secure a nomination from one of the two major political parties, namely the ruling People Power Party (PPP) and its main opposition, the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK). Gaining this party blessing is tantamount to passing a test determining whether one will join the elite ruling class in South Korean society. For a citizen wishing to become a member of the National Assembly, and thus a representative of the people, one would think it should be a fundamental requirement to be free of legal and moral deficiencies. However, it is reported that 43 percent of the candidates nominated by political parties in the upcoming general elections on April 10 have criminal records.

To secure a nomination from a major party, it is crucial to be adept at flattering the most influential figures within it. In South Korean politics, the key methods are to quickly align with the party’s main power brokers, be attentive to their mood and possess an exceptional ability to flatter — characteristic of a master in the art of survival. Gaining entry to the political club is thus not unlike a new jail inmate seeking protection from an established prison gang, and subsequently enjoying all the benefits of gang membership. To expect from them a sense of mission akin to Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation” is unrealistic from the outset.

Both the PPP and DPK have boasted that they would use objective criteria for nominating candidates in this election, but there is little evidence that they have followed through on these claims. The DPK’s nominations were especially disappointing, with the de facto standard seemingly being whether one would display loyalty to the party leader, Lee Jae-myung. As for the ruling PPP, things have also changed little: nominations were generally awarded to those already part of the vested-interest class. Establishing a replenishing system, through which fresh faces and new ideas are brought in from the outside, seems not to be on either party’s agenda. Such flawed nomination procedures employed by the two major parties will nevertheless lead to the election of the majority of members of the National Assembly. The winners will be individuals who have passed through a very opaque nomination process, which can hardly be called a “system.” Some will be masters at discerning the will of the powerful, yet fall far short of the moral standards of the average citizen.

Many voters in South Korea attach tremendous significance to the act of voting itself, carried out every four years to realize “representative democracy.” They may hold high expectations that members of the National Assembly, elected through a sacred exercise of democracy, will uphold the will of the people and govern well. Sadly, this is almost delusional. What actually takes place is nothing more than a delegation of power to the skilled political survivors who have secured nominations from powerful major parties and won elections through a ceremonial act of voting. Furthermore, the act of voting often reflects not an exercise of public reason based on individual judgment, but rather a mere transference of power by a populace that has become zombified through blind allegiance, subjugation and indoctrination.

Thus, even though representative democracy, through which a people’s representatives are chosen through elections, is considered the best system humanity has yet devised, its implementation can be severely flawed. The stark reality of South Korean politics is that the two main political forces, symbolized by the PPP and DPK, shape the country to their own liking. While the PPP claims to be conservative, and the DPK liberal, the reality is merely a political battle between vested interests disguised in conservative and liberal masks. Regardless of which party holds power, neither is keen on tackling the core issues — political, social or economic — of South Korean society from a truly conservative or liberal perspective. They prefer to focus on immediate and more politically gainful matters. Developing and implementing policies that would fundamentally address these issues is hard and often thankless, and thus attempts to find true solutions are avoided. Consequently, the already poor practices of both the conservative and liberal political forces are likely to continue deteriorating over time.

What methods do these major parties use to control their respective supporters? They seek to ensure that the masses do not question — and instead blindly follow — their orders. Although some have turned their backs on the DPK due to rage over Lee Jae-myung’s disastrous handling of the party nominations, most defended him resolutely, even if it involved ushering pro-North Korea forces into the National Assembly to expand his backing. They claim that the PPP must be eradicated. And the blind followers of the ruling PPP are not much different. They vehemently criticize the DPK for supposedly colluding with anti-state or pro-North Korea forces that refuse to recognize the Republic of Korea’s right to exist. However, they also remain silent about the fundamental issue of worsening economic polarization in South Korean society between the classes with vested interests and everyone else. This hesitance prevents the implementation of audacious socio-economic reforms that could heal many disparities and reduce pro-North Korea sentiment.

The two major parties, proclaiming conservatism and liberalism through abstract slogans largely devoid of substance, have each regularly secured a support base of roughly 40 percent who will follow them blindly. For the remaining fifth of voters in the middle ground, populist promises are cunningly deployed to attract anyone at the margin. Unlike prisoners desperately seeking protection, or politicians desperately seeking a candidacy, it is fortunate that voters can freely choose which party to vote for — or choose not to vote at all — but they may be unenthused with their options. This is the tragedy of South Korean “prison 스포츠토토존 politics.”


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