Digital Times “Because this year forms the close of a long-term cycle, we need political innovation and participatory politics”
March 3, 2017
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The Digital Times
Ye Jeen Soo
■ 2017 Restart Korea
Insights into deep-rooted problems in the Korean economy by foreign experts
Interview with Emanuel Pastreich
professor at Kyunghee University’s International Graduate School
Emanuel Pastreich (Korean name, Lee Man-Yeol • 53) Professor at Kyunghee University’s College of International Studies is a scholar who knows Korea better than Koreans. When we asked about problems in Korean education, he spoke of the strengths of traditional Korean education, strengths found in the remarkable spirit of the ethical Korean scholar (seonbi) and the traditional spirit of community. Pastreich majored in classical Chinese literature at Yale University and received a master`s degree from University of Tokyo and a doctoral degree from Harvard University. Considered an outstanding scholar, he speaks Korean, Chinese and Japanese fluently. Little things like the kindness he demonstrated when to female employee who brought the coffee revealed that he has much internalized that traditional Korean tradition of courtesy.
We asked him about direction of Korea after the political disruption of the presidential impeachment trial when he visited the Digital Times on February 23.
– Korean society is torn by political conflicts as we have not seen in a long time. So hysteric are the criticisms it looks more like a street fight.
“This situation not only found in Korea but also in the US. Impeachment may take place in the US as well, perhaps the process will start soon after the presidential impeachment is finished in Korea.
Weak civic consciousness is the most serious problem in Korea, but it is also a global problem. Whether it is the White House in Washington D.C., or the Blue House in Korea, the politicians of the National Assembly have no real association with the general public. Politicians engage in politics with each other. That means that if people do not know each other in their neighborhoods, and if the do not communicate with each other, there will not be a democratic transformation no matter who is elected as president in an election.”
– Robert D. Putnam also pointed out the political cynicism and indifference that overwhelms our society in his book “Bowling alone.” As the title suggests, before people bowled together as teams but now they often just bowl alone. What is the relationship between gathering as groups and democracy?
“Good question. In the past, citizens knew the names of the people living in the neighborhood, and there were many participatory events. That was a form of direct democracy as they formed a real community. Even though I have lived in Seoul for many years, I rarely have a significant conversation with the neighbor next door. Interaction among people dropped off and Korea has become a “social desert.” Although the 1970s was not a democracy, at least people in the neighborhood knew each other well. Even the people who were opposed to the government met periodically and formed a community. That is not true now.
Theda Skocpol describes this phenomenon in her book “Diminished Democracy.” If we have an extremely individualistic society, no matter how good a president we have, there is little hope of accountability in government. The media has become more passive. Reading newspapers is frustrating because you cannot find any in-depth analysis of key policies or of legislation under review at the National Assembly.”
-Do you think that “Park Geun Hye and Choi Soon Sil gate” can be simply attributed to public indifference?
“National indifference towards policy and politics is one of the reasons for these growth of unhealthy links between business and government. We find the expression “to be cautious even when alone” in Confucius’ The Analects. The expression means to think and to act properly even when no one is watching.
I think that this corruption, including the Choi Soon Sil scandal is related to the loss of that Confucian principle in government. In the Joseon Dynasty, many senior bureaucrats and scholars lived a simple life, and Kyung-bok Palace is quite modest and human in scale when compared with Beijing’s Forbidden City. The Joseon dynasty, although limited in its own way, was an age when a frugal life, contribution to society, was held up as an ideal. Many of the simple government officials had been trained in that Confucian tradition from childhood and felt that doing their best for country and family was the most valuable act possible. They would not engage in any corrupt actions when others were not looking.”
– We have seen numerous candlelight rallies in Gwanghwamun Square. But is this true democracy?
“The gathering of citizens in the streets to demand accountability and responsible politics, rule by law, is sublime. The Korean model is having influence in other countries and increasing political consciousness in other countries as well.
But these demonstrations are not the solution to the problem of political culture. New challenges wait just around the corner. It is necessary to be critical, skeptical, of any politician, no matter how honest or progressive he seems.
The politician should be evaluated based on his actions, not on the basis of his words. Make sure to observe the actions of the politician you elect so that you can confirm the difference between what he says, and what he does. It is a problem that there is no direct dialog between citizens and their congressmen about the important issues pending in the National Assembly. Go to their offices and you will see how rare it is that the public seeks them out. The most important thing to change politics is our actions.”
-The Korean economy has entered a long-term low growth.
“Koreans need to think about the economy in a multinational context as trade is so important to South Korea. A serious recession is expected in this year and the foundations of the shipping and shipbuilding industries are collapsing before our eyes. But the government has no vision for what will replace them and can only the spend citizens’ precious taxes to prop up these weakened industries. In addition, although South Korea is a close economic partner of China, the sudden decision of Korea to deploy the THAAD anti-missile in defiance of Chinese concerns has resulted in a large curtailing of economic exchange with South Korea. So, will a better relationship with the United States make up for the loss? Actually, American trade policy is becoming more protectionist under the Trump administration. Moreover, although the administrations of Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung pushed for free trade and open financial markets, that very strategy is increasingly subject to question.”
– What kind of a change is needed in economic policy?
“Korea’s main strategy in the period of high growth was to amass domestic capital encouraging domestic savings by citizens. That move was combined with a drive to increase Korea’s education level (not just for elites but for all citizens).
The Korean government will need to strategically manage the domestic financial system in the future. The rich-poor gap must be addressed if you want a healthy society. If you visit Incheon International Airport, all you will see is expensive clothes and watches in the airport shops. This new economy means that you only have to sell one luxury watch and it will make more profit than selling a thousands of daily necessities for ordinary people.
The economy of low-income workers, and small and medium enterprises, seems small in economic figures, but it is critical to our society. It must be developed aggressively.
The free access to finance for large corporations should be cut and in its place micro-finance aimed at ordinary citizens established so that they can borrow small amounts like one million or five million KRW easily from banks for their little projects.
We need a system that provides finance for efforts that actually help the local economy and avoid speculation. It is critical to cultivate a domestic system financial and to build up domestic-based industry, technology and education infrastructure.”
– Korean de-industrialization is a serious problem.
“Currently, we are witnessing the exquisite overlap of the end of several cycles in Korean development. First, this is the final year of the five-year political regime cycle of Park Geun-hye and we see corruption and chaos as we always get at this point in the political cycle. But it is also the end of a decade-long conservative regime cycle. Moreover importantly, the industrialization of Korea, which began in 1961, has now entered its final stages. The paradigm for growth no longer works and we face a slowdown steel, shipbuilding, automobile and oil industry which will not get better. A lot of manufacturers have already gone abroad and other industries are outdated.
Korea has to take this situation seriously as there is little hope if we follow this path of propping up outdated industry.
The Trump administration’s policies have serious problems such as racism. But why is Trump able to maintain a certain support among the population? He has told ordinary citizens that he will not send factories to Mexico and China. There is a reason why he uses this term ‘America first’. I ask myself why there is not a Korean politician who calls out for ‘Korea first’!”
– How about innovation in the Korean education system?
“Education is an investment in the future of the country. We must remember the wisdom of the leader Kim Goo who emphasized culture. I think Kim Goo was himself much influenced by Confucian concepts of politics and economics. Koreans traditionally saw culture as the core of society. They thought, if culture is healthy, the entire society is healthy. Confucian philosophy in Korea called for a unity of education, administration and ethics. Politics and administration were not a mere question of efficiency, but there must be a moral and ethical goal.
Young people need to escape from this hell of excessive competition and to realize the importance of cooperation. It is possible for us to change the world if we create a welcoming community in which people work together as partners.”
– What kind of leader do we need in the future?
“Job losses, the economic downturn, and the backwardness of the political culture are perceived as problems of individuals. We have no plan for real innovation in the system itself. There is no specific plan for how to respond with even the most serious problems even though Korea’s economic situation is now worse than it was at the time of the IMF foreign exchange crisis in 1997.
All the candidates, Moon Jae In, Ahn Hee Jung, Lee Jae Myeong, Ahn Cheol Soo, and Yoo Seung Min, could be effective presidents. I do not think that the individual is so critical now. We need a healthy institutional and political culture, a committed civil society, and a government system that is capable of change, of reform.
The question of whether the government plays a role properly is not a matter of conservative or progressive politics. We need a strong government. But that is not a government that abuses authority to benefit the elites, but rather a government that puts forward long-term plans for the nation and realizes them in a systematic manner.”
-Why is citizen participation also important?
“Let us look at the case of US President- Richard Nixon, who was forced to step down in 1974. President Nixon was an extremely cynical politician and not trusted by the public. He was deeply corrupt and irresponsible.
Yet, ironically, President Nixon passed many good laws and important legislation was enacted during his administration. Nixon addressed problems with racial discrimination and environmental problems actively and met frequently with workers. You see, Nixon was forced to advocate for reform because of the strong demand by many active citizens. Individual politicians are not so important; a healthy political culture is critical. Many politicians do not serve the country. They are just looking for a good opportunity for themselves. Such a mindset is the ultimate problem. We need a culture of sacrifice in which politicians, government officials, are thinking first and foremost about their neighbors, society, the nation.”