“The Crisis in Korean politics today”  Asia Institute Report

The Crisis in Korean politics today

Asia Institute Report

Emanuel Pastreich

October 13, 2017



Months of protests by a broad range of citizens groups and countless individuals, from elementary school students to seniors, resulted not only in the impeachment of a president, the launch of a serious investigation of the tragic sinking of the Sewol Ferry, serious charges brought against numerous individuals engaged in influence peddling and fraud and one of the most transparent presidential elections held in any country.

The ethical commitment of ordinary citizens in Korea has made a tremendous difference and the increasingly corrupt politics of ritual and back-room deals has been brought to the attention of the public in a manner that is both shocking and inspiring. At a time when citizens in the United States or Japan lament that they can do nothing to change their government, Korea has displayed that significant change and reform is possible. Korea not only is inspiring other nations not only through cultural productions like music and film, but also through political action and democratic vitality.

But we have not even started to address the real problems. If Korea seizes the opportunity, it can create a new political culture that will make change possible again and which can not only transform political parties, but also transform government itself, as well as corporations and government. We can create a new participatory society in which we do not merely consume products provided by anonymous corporations and lose ourselves in distracting media entertainment and the worship of idols and celebrities, but rather help each other to create a better society. Korea can be a model that will inspire other nations to evolve as societies and move forward. Already, China has reported about the impeachment proceedings with a degree of detail that is unprecedented. Such a move suggests that many in the Chinese government see the Korean model for government reform as a viable model for China. Other nations in Asia, and around the world, are watching Korea very closely.

This new global role for Korea should give all members of the new democracy movement, Democracy 1.7, a new sense of mission. This movement is not simply about chasing corrupt people out of power, but rather about creating a new culture of mutual support, symbiosis, political accountability and ultimately environmental sustainability, that will be a model not only for future generations of Koreans, but for the entire world.

To make such a shift in our awareness requires a strong sense of history on the part of all members of the candlelight demonstrations. We are not the first people to make this effort. We follow a tradition that can be traced back to common citizens and intellectuals who strove for good government in the Goryo, and before, back to the efforts of King Sejong to establish a truly participatory government that treated the ideals of the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean not merely as inspiring words to encourage students, but a potential for a government devoted to the needs of ordinary people. In a sense King Sejong took the Confucian classics more seriously than the Chinese did and tried to actually realize the democratic potential hidden within them. Nor did that tradition end there. There were those who fought against the restrictions on secondary sons in the 17th century, who fought against the corruption of Youngjo in the 18th century, who fought against the concentration of power in a handful of families in the 19th century, and also who fought against the Japanese occupation and exploitative economic systems in the 20th century. In fact there many who made tremendous sacrifices in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in order to make it possible for the students to launch the democracy movements of the 1980s.

You should take inspiration from Korea’s unique democratic tradition, but at the same time, you must also have your eyes open to the tremendous challenges we face. Do not be naïve and plan for a long-term effort that will include your helping those younger than you to understand the issues and understand what they can do in the future. This may be an effort that will take decades. I do not say that to discourage you, but rather to suggest how we must address the issues.

But the internationalization of the effort brings a new quality to this effort. Whereas those before you, from King Sejong to the students who fought for direct elections in the 1980s, were working for transformation in Korea, your efforts will have global implications and you may be the people who inspire others whom you have never met. In the sense that the French Revolution brought new hopes for transformation that inspired people around the world in the 18th century, your actions can have such significant impact.


What attitude should each of us adopt?


You should think that your every act has significance both in terms of historical development of democracy and also in terms of the global evolution of human civilization which goes far beyond your own personal experience. You have a precious duty and it should give every moment of your day new depth and importance. Changing Korea, and then changing the world, will not be a matter of putting bad people in jail and electing politicians who advocate certain policies. Changing Korea means changing how we behave every day towards each other and towards our community. We must understand how our actions can change the unhealthy patterns in thinking that lead people to exploit each other and to think only in terms of short-term benefits for ourselves.

We may want to think that such greed and corruption is limited to Choi Sun-shil’s scandals, but if we look carefully at ourselves we will see that some elements of the extreme actions those people have taken can be found in our daily lives. Without even knowing we were doing it, we have also been seduced by the ruthless consumer culture and sloppy ethical thinking that we see writ larger in the actions of chaebol families and politicians. Only when we start to ask ourselves how does the economy and our society work? and what is our position in that complex tapestry? will we start to find real solutions and start the revolution in culture and habit that is required.

What does that mean for your concrete actions? It means that every time you see someone working to clean the building where you work, or to serve you at a restaurant, or to provide anything that you, or our society benefits from as a whole. You should exchange greetings, as if you were meeting your equal, and you should say “thank YOU.” You should even show such kindness and respect when talking to homeless people, or with those who suffer from mental handicaps. Your simple actions will start to change the fabric that our society is made of and those actions will make as big a difference as political demonstrations do, but at a different level.


Or you should do what you can to protect our precious and threatened environment. You should carry a cup with you always and not use plastic or paper cups. You should insist that no plastic wrappings, plastic or paper bags, unnecessary napkins or other wasteful items are consumed, even having the bravery to tell people that we must change such wasteful habits. You should do so constantly, without fear, and with the intention not of going after any individual as a “bad person” but rather transforming our society.

You should also talk with your friends and family about how our economy and our society works, or does not work. That is to say, stop chatting about what delicious cake you ate, or how cute that puppy was, or what the latest song by a hit band is. Start to spend your time talking about where money comes from, and where it goes. How the political system works and how government, corporations, NGOs, as well as families and friendships, are being transformed by the pressures of technology, globalization, finance, and commercialization.

It takes discipline and it takes a real ethical commitment to start to talk that way, and to start focusing your attention on how the world works and what our ethical responsibilities should be, but there is no doubt that you are capable of that shift. If you make that shift, you will inspire others around you to make that same shift. Over time, your actions, and those of others around you, will create a new Korea. We will not need to rely on corporations, or famous professors, or think tanks to tell us how the world works because we will be training ourselves to understand the world ourselves. We will hold ourselves first to high standards, and that will put pressure on those in government and industry to hold themselves to high standards.

What do we need to do? We need to create for ourselves what we want to create in our society as a whole. We must create among ourselves the equivalent of the media by discussing with our friends and family what we think are the critical issues in our society, in our families and in our environment. We need to train ourselves to engage in meaningful discussions that produce real understanding and we must avoid emotional expressions in which we merely exclaim how much we like or dislike some person without making an effort to understand the complete picture. If we want media to engage in real discussions, we must create for ourselves a culture of real debate and alter the habits of all Koreans. Drop by drop by drop, we will bring new vitality into our culture and make the scientific pursuit of truth a part of our daily life, like the air we breathe. The media will simply not be able to continue on in the same manner. Citizens will no longer be able to put up with dishonesty, with distractions, with a focus on trivia and celebrities, in broadcast or newspapers. But citizens will not start to change their expectations and their demands until they start to take control of their own lives and start to modify their habits.

High school students should create their own newspapers and report about their own lives, their schools, their experiences, and their worries like suicide, entrance exams and careers. They should report about issues small and larger in their communities and build up real newspapers on relevant topics that will help their fellow students. They should not do so merely as entertainment, or as a distraction, but as a means of giving themselves control over their destinies and building a sense of community among students where previously their was only ruthless competition.

We also need to create the equivalent of the national assembly and the blue house at the local level as well. We need to introduce ourselves to our neighbors and start to talk to them about what the common needs in our neighborhood are, to learn about their concerns about their children, or parents, are. We need to create, in miniature, our own small form of governance as a community in our apartment complex, and build those exchanges into real long-term commitments. We can build a community in which people do not commit suicide, or despair about their childrens’ future any more. Why? Because their neighbors have sworn that they will do everything they can to help each other.

We need to have regular meetings of the members of our neighborhood to discuss how we can improve our schools, how we can pool our resources, how we can put our money together to buy things together. We can build trust to a degree where we can help raise our children together, help clean up our parks together, help to teach each other’s children together and build a real community that is for the people. As we come together to form villages and cooperatives, as we write down the names of our neighbors and remember them, and keep in mind their needs and concerns, we will create a community that is in a position to make meaningful proposals to local government. If local government offers us funding, we will be able to manage it effectively and make it work for everyone.

As we learn how to work together to identify issues and possible solutions in our neighborhoods, to bring together the wisdom and knowledge of all citizens and to formulate solutions that we can implement on our own, often without the need of government, we will be creating a vital and active form of government in miniature in our own community. If we can make a promise to each other that we will help each other out in difficulty and we will modify our behavior so as to create a healthier society, we will set the foundations for a healthy society in a manner that a politician running for office is incapable.

We will also create small cooperative organizations that provide barter of services between community members (babysitting for each other, sharing tools, or skills, or space) as a means of creating value and economic activity on our own. These cooperative organizations, both small and large, will be the equivalent of corporations at the local level and will offer an alternative model for production and economic activity that will profoundly impact how people think about the term “경제” at every level in Korean society.

Finally, it is essential that we support artists in our local community and encourage, support them, in their efforts to create music, paintings, murals and festivals for our citizens. The local creation of art is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity for a healthy society. Today our children are bombarded with slick images on television, in magazines and in advertisements around them that encourage them to believe that the only way to find happiness and meaningfulness in life is to ruthlessly consume products sold by major corporations. Those artistic productions in commercial advertising, those subtle films and musical songs that surround us day and night determine our behavior patterns and our assumptions, persuading people that only by buying and consuming can they find meaning in life.

But if we support artists, and make their art a central part of community life, we can give citizens images of a society based on cooperation and mutual respect. We can create a society that discusses serious, even tragic issues, and not just lightweight and non-threatening trivia. Local artists can transform how we see ourselves and inspire us to start creating culture with our own hands, rather than having culture given to us by corporations.

These artists are not there to provide things for us to consume. They are not there to distract us or offer up tears or laughs that will distract us for a moment. They are there to offer us new inspirations based on a cooperative culture and to inspire us to exercise our dormant imagination and start to create alternative models for our interactions with each other that can slowly start to change our society as a whole and create bonds between people that will heal the terrible alienation in Korean society that has led to terrible loneliness and even suicide among so many.

So what is the larger significance of creating vital communities in which everyone knows everyone and they work together to help each other and to further the common good? The social benefits of reducing alienation and saving money and resources by sharing is obvious. But there is another benefit which may not be immediately obvious. The source of discontent, alienation and greed in our society is not a single person, or even a group of families. Rather the real structural problem is that the decision makers in the media, in corporations and in government have come to see a system in which the generation of profits through stocks and derivatives, through the domination of sources of capital, and through the encouragement of ruthless and exploitative competition is the only viable model for how a society, or a corporation, or a government can be run. They cannot imagine another kind of society and they feel that they must do everything to increase stock value and short-term profits.

Even if these leaders in politics and corporations are decent and responsible people, they feel obliged to first do everything for the increase of stock values and short term profits. Only once they have done this work can they turn what little attention remains to addressing serious social issues. Sadly, the best men and women are forced to put their energy into supporting activities that cause great pain to society and can only work on activities that are healing to society in their spare time.

But if we create these communities at the local level, we will offer up a viable model for another way in which government and corporations can be run, one based around human relations and communities, as opposed to capital and profits. The more powerful this alternative model becomes in Korean society, the more pressure there will be on the Korean government and on Korean corporations to transform themselves into more human and more participatory organizations. Personally, I think that we can carry out such innovations in government more easily than in industry, but ultimately both government and corporations can be fundamentally transformed if we create enough cooperative structures in Korean society. Conversely, if we do not have cooperative organizations, a cooperative economy as a significant part of Korean society, it will be impossible to pressure government and industry to change because they will assume that there model is the only workable model.

Some people will respond that this proposal is hopelessly naïve and cannot be applied in present-day Korea. They will say that modern Koreans are not interested in forming communities for cooperation in the way that they did fifty years ago. They will say that young Koreans simply do not have the patience to read texts carefully, to write seriously about current affairs, or to discuss complex issues in depth with their friends.

Although it is certainly true that Koreans do not form such close communities these days and that young people have far more trouble focusing on complex topics, or reading long books, we should not assume that this state is a permanent one. The human mind has tremendous flexibility and there exists amazing capacity for transformation. Although it is true that many young people spend their days sending silly short messages to each other over smart phones. It is possible for a small group of people to set out in a different direction for Korean society and create a new culture for Korea in which serious discussion takes place instead of the mere response to stimulating or amusing news stories. We can make careful reading and serious writing an essential part of our society if we set that as a priority.

But we cannot make this progress unless we recognized that merely responding to amusing or emotionally stirring text messages is not the long-term means of carrying out political reform. We must force ourselves to dive deep into the world of policy and economics, and learn how our own neighborhood is run if we want to create a public that can respond in a meaningful manner to the challenges of the current day. Such a community can be built, but we will only do so if we agree that it is as important to create that community, to have regular discussions in our neighborhoods about politics in order to carry out real reform. We must recognize that large scale protests in themselves are critical, but they are only one part of the process.


What is politics?


We must reform the culture of politics and create a rigorous and vital discourse on policy and the long-term development of communities, cities, provinces and the nation as a whole which is welcoming to citizens and which is directly connected to those who make policy and implement and interpret that policy. Such a reform can only take place if we first look at the systems that have developed in Korea, and to an even greater degree in the United States, over the last three decades—often running counter to the progressive appearance of political leaders. This process will take years and we should spend as much time cultivating and encouraging the next generation who lead after us as we do trying to make political breakthroughs today.

Politics has become a ritual space which is entirely detached from the lives of ordinary people and which seems irrelevant, or inaccessible. Politicians meet other politicians and discuss their needs and interests in an arcane manner which cannot be understood by outsiders. Politicians give speeches for citizens, and engage in ritual activities at official gatherings on a regular basis. But they do more with the intention of giving an impression to those that they meet that they are figures of authority, or that they have a benevolent concern for the community. They take questions and offer their pre-prepared answers, but it is clear in most every case that the purpose of meeting the community it not to learn about that community, or to take advice from the community that will be then be made into policy, but rather to do maintain good public relations and get coverage in the media.

Such an approach is a ritual and it is not politics in the original sense of the word. There is an absolute divide between the community and the politician in terms of priorities and there seems to be no effort made to bridge it. Moreover, although the citizens are often the experts concerning what is happening in their community, and not the politician, fifty years of exposure to a consumer culture has rendered citizens deeply passive. They think of politicians as products that they have a chance to select and then dispose of if they do not do the job that they anticipated them doing. But the citizen must first be aware of his or her ability to propose a solution and make a demand. Politicians are not products like Pepsi Cola or Coca Cola to be bought and consumed through massive advertising campaigns. Rather, they are humans, with strengths and weaknesses, who must be encouraged and guided towards a higher goal by constant interaction with, and pressure from, committed citizens.

Gatherings with citizens are not a way to highlight the politician’s authority or give him a chance to appear in the media in a favorable manner. Such meetings should rather be an essential part of the policy process wherein proposals are initially made and then debated. The critical discussions and decisions in the process of making policy should not be made in committee, or over drinks at exclusive clubs between politicians, businessmen and high ranking bureaucrats. The citizens should consider it an essential part of their lives to be engaged in the debate on policy and to know what plans there are to build new roads or cut the budget for the local schools.

If citizens have that commitment, if they feel that such an awareness and involvement is their responsibility, they will be able to transform politics. A talented politician cannot achieve such a transformation by himself. If citizens are aware of what the issues debated in the national assembly are, if they create their own newspapers and discuss pending laws and budgets as part of their daily activities (as opposed to playing video games or watching TV shows about people eating food) then we will see real change. But this change can only come from a change in Korean culture, in Korean political culture.

In a sense the relationship of citizen to politician can be compared with the relationship of a patient with a doctor. Many patients make no effort to understand the details of the medical procedures that they undergo. Such a passive attitude is widespread and it is fine in many cases. There are, however, patients who make the effort to understand the science behind the procedures that they undergo, and also there are doctors who explain in detail the procedures so as to allow the patient to understand the process. Such an effort can lead to far better treatment both because the patient can offer meaningful responses and participate in the process and also because a relationship of trust can be established. Finally doctors often appreciate that patients have made the effort to learn about the field and thereby show real respect for the doctor’s craft.

In the case of the current political crisis in Korea, President Moon must do his absolute best to avoid the mistakes of President Obama in the United States. President Obama came into office with a mandate for change and control of the congress by the Democratic Party. He focused his efforts on what was easy, and not what was hard. He was a genius concerning image and his own political positioning. He made little effort to achieve any real change in the domination of investment banks over the process of policy formulation in Washington D.C. In fact, he included in his economic team many of the same bankers from the Bush administration who had been responsible for the financial crash.

Of course Obama thought he was being smart. He was not making any waves, and he was reaching out to the Republicans so as to assure he would have smooth sailing and could improve his own image. But the result of not taking a stand on critical issues, not risking becoming unpopular, was that Wall Street increased its political power and Obama was seen as just a progressive face that could be used to distract citizens from the ruthless privatization of the government. The result was a disaster for the country. The watering down of the Democratic Party’s mandate as a result is what made it possible for Donald Trump to become president. Citizens felt increasingly that there was no difference between the two parties and therefore Trump’s ability to stir up nationalistic emotions was successful in that the Democratic Party could no longer present itself as the defender of the ordinary citizen.

Let us look at the history of the Democratic Party in the United States and see if it offers us any insights into current Korean politics. The Democratic Party in the United States lost its long-time support from citizens groups, labor unions (which grew much weaker) and youth in the 1980s. The Democratic Party’s leadership was out of touch with contemporary needs and did not keep up with the concerns of citizens. No matter what terrible things the Republicans did, the Democrats had trouble rallying people to vote for them because the Democratic Party was no longer involved in local affairs and no longer accessible..

The “new Democrats,” lead by Bill Clinton, set out to solve this problem by adopting a new strategy. Clinton articulated certain democratic ideas in his speeches, but he no longer saw support from citizens groups and labor unions as critical. Instead, he sought out the industries that the Republicans had ignored and promised to help them. Whereas the Republicans supported oil companies and defense contractors, the Democrats stood up for entertainment companies and for IT companies. The strategy worked, and it made Clinton a successful politician, but it meant that Democrats ceased to represent citizens and began to represent different factions within the business community. Increasingly, Democratic politicians were captured by investment banks and ceased to listen to their supporters.

Today, many citizens are alienated from the political process and do not see any reason to vote for anyone, or to belong to a political party. I know from my own experience that political parties like the Democratic Party do not take the needs of citizens seriously and just employ some talented speechwriters to write speeches that will whip up some excitement before elections so as to get people to vote democratic, After the election, however, politicians disappear, going back to servicing their corporate clients. There is no democracy, or space for ordinary people, in the process of making policy.

But that was not always how politics worked. The Democratic Party was not always a progressive party, but when it became one in the late 1920s, it was by becoming something more than just an organization supporting politicians. The party became a part of communities, in some cases becoming an organization that people could turn to in hardship. It was a cooperative organization that brought people together regularly, and not only for elections. The Democratic Party was not a perfect organization, but it had a clear role in society on a daily basis. By making itself relevant, the Democratic Party could counter the power that came with the wealth possessed by the conservative Republican Party. It could build networks for mutual aid among ordinary citizens. The Democratic Party, on the base of its powerful organization, was able to successfully take on powerful corporations and force real change.

But that sort of a party no longer exists in the United States or in Korea. We have mainstream parties which are not a part of our daily lives and in which most people do not have deep trust. Some citizens will vote for parties based upon certain issues, but for most the commitment is limited. The result being that even progressive parties gravitate towards money.

We need to seriously rethink what the function of parties should be. If the process of formulating policy is increasingly taken over by political parties, and the consultants and other corporations associated with them,  that shift creates an unconstitutional environment. The government is supposed to carry out the formulation of policy and the implementation of policy. Government should have sufficient means to do so and employ capable people who effectively implement those policies. The role of formulating policy belongs to the people and to government. Political parties can only play a role in that ordinary citizens are involved in that process. If we allow political parties to become large bureaucracies, if we let the political parties make policy, then we will end up having a system for making policy which is unaccountable.


Issues for our time


There are a tremendous range of issues that we need to address, many of which are being ignored. Some of those problems can be addressed through policies, other problems require different approaches. In any case, we must create a political environment in which complex issues faced by our citizens can be addressed in complex manner.

At present, we have only the options of raising or lowering interest rates, of increasing or decreasing budgets for government organizations. More often than not, we have government organizations which by their very nature are detached from local communities and are incapable of spending their budgets in a manner that would be beneficial. Broadening the range of possible solutions considered and the range of topics that can be discussed, is essential to future success.

For example, the issue of class is central in Korean society but politicians refuse to address it. Wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of people and they form an elite who can ignore laws and buy special privileges for their families. Koreans are fully aware of this social problem, although Korean do not know what the distortions in the economy are which have allowed this to happen. Concentration of wealth produces class differences and we can already see the manner in which the wealthy treat with distain those who they see as being there only to serve them. That group of lower-class people is increasing.

There is also a course whereby those from wealthy families are given internships and jobs based on their family connections, and admission to university has less to do with ability than with the wealth to send children to elite schools. The problem will get far worse in the years to come and will eventually start to destroy the fabric of society.

So also the question of economics must be taken seriously. The concepts of “gross national product” or “exports” are not the only, or best, way to measure economic growth and increasingly they refer to the profits of a small number of people these days. Sadly we see politicians who claim to represent ordinary citizens who use the terms to describe the economy which are generated by banks.

These politicians can express sympathy for the people, but they cannot put forth any policies that will help ordinary people. Rather they assume that the reality for them is one in which the vast majority of funding goes to major corporations and some of that money will somehow trickle down to the people. But although the intentions may be good, the assumptions are wrong. Politics must cease to be the selection between a limited number of options. Politics should be about defining what our economic priorities should be and being creative in creating an economy focused on the needs of ordinary people. Our highest priority should be investing in our people, all of them, not investing in robots, factories or various financial products for corporate bonds and derivatives.

Increasing trade does not necessarily mean that we will increase the wealth of ordinary citizens. Banks should not be driven by short term profits but rather focused on long-term goals. It is entirely legitimate to prohibit the vast majority of banks from any speculative activities involving stocks and bonds and have them focus entirely on financing, in a boring, systematic and consistent manner, important national projects. Those projects would be massive in scale, stretching over ten to forty years, and involve the creation of an economy with is entirely renewable, establishment of local cooperatives that will serve as the primary creators of jobs and the move away from a ruthlessly competitive economy.

Yet politicians have not started to address the question of how the economy works for us, or to propose solutions that involve institutional change. There is a tendency to attack the “bad people” who are greedy, but few proposals to change the system fundamentally or to rally the large numbers of people who are being adversely impacted to as bring real pressure to bear on the problem. For the most part, politicians do not see the poor, or working class, as a group to engage seriously with, and even middle class people are not taken so seriously. The problem is simply that the politicians feel that they must service first elite groups related to the economy and to industry first and then they can address the concerns of ordinary people. The order is backwards.

And then there is the threat of climate change. At present scientists agree that climate change will be the greatest threat to humanity, promising the threat of extinction for many species and perhaps for humans. It will require trillions of dollars in investments to entirely reinvent farming, respond to rising sea levels and ameliorate the spread of deserts. Yet the current administration has not placed a priority on climate change or identified it as a serious threat. Climate change should be explicitly identified as a factor in almost all aspects of domestic policy and made a critical priority in security planning, going far beyond the relatively harmless North Korea.




We need a government with highly educated and capable people in it who have the confidence and the bravery to take on hard issues like class and climate change, and to effectively regulate industry so as to make sure we have a just society. Corporations have spent an enormous amount of money trying to convince citizens that these crises are not happening at all, or that they are not that important. We have a false understanding of the world in which North Korea’s nuclear weapons seem like the biggest threat and class divisions or climate change, do not exist. The next stage for politics in Korea will be making these topics visible through education, activism and concrete proposals.

That means broad engagement in education, in collaboration and in advocacy of the sort that government, or organizations have not done in recent memory. But we should have faith that it is possible to engage in such efforts, and that it is our moral obligation. We can give people a taste of education that is not aimed at tests, but rather at helping to empower citizens, a taste of citizens working together to build a better society, not competing with each other ruthlessly for the profit of others. We can give them a taste for a government that works for the people and which takes its interactions with the people seriously. Such an effort cannot be successful overnight, but a few test cases will at least inspire people to strive for more.

Political parties will play an important role in this process, but political parties must do so with the full understanding that their roles will change as Korean society evolves. The ultimate goal is a more transparent and more accountable political culture and economy that is focused on the needs or ordinary people. That process will be painful and it will involve many setbacks and sacrifices, but embracing this directive will give our daily actions new significance and assure that we know we are making a difference.



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