South Korea transcends the blindness of the old
In the history of democratic countries, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun may be the first president to successfully stage a political comeback after being impeached by parliament.
On March 12, barely a year into his five-year term, Roh was impeached by the opposition-led National Assembly and forced into a two-month political limbo. One month later, South Koreans voted in parliamentary polls and gave a slim majority to the pro-Roh Uri Party, thereby bringing him justice. Roh himself described the general election as a referendum in which the electorate gave him a second vote of confidence. On May 14, the Constitutional Court ruled to overturn the impeachment and reinstate Roh.
The ruling brought down the curtain on a farce in which Roh suffered both
the disgrace of being the first impeached president and the honor of receiving a fresh mandate. Given his public support and his firm control of the assembly, Roh will feel less fettered in implementing his policies than he was in his first year.
While this fiasco, staged by a former assembly dominated by vested interests, has become a laughingstock worldwide, the twists and turns of Roh's political life may well arouse the sympathy of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
The confrontation between the progressive reformist Roh and the conservative, reactionary assembly, which lasted from March to the overturning
of impeachment, brought the Koreans' polarized national character into the limelight. Propped up by over 70 percent support, Roh stood firmly against the
assembly, refused to apologize and thus pushed the assembly to impeach him on poorly grounded charges of violation of electoral laws and corruption on the part of Roh's assistant.
What Roh counted on during the impeachment crisis was the result of last month's parliamentary election. Roh recognized that an escalated confrontation between government and opposition might fuel the electorate's aversion to the Grand National Party (GNP), and thereby put the hastily formed Uri party in a more favorable light. Roh capitalized on the impeachment to beat the GNP at its own game. The gambling nature of Korean politics was also made clearer as a result.
The Uri Party made a huge leap from its original 46 seats to 152 seats, securing a slim majority in the 299-seat National Assembly. With the two opposition parties, the GNP and the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) suffering crushing defeats, the opposition-led parliament was laid to rest. The election results must have put a smile on Roh's face as he sat in his Blue House office. Apparently, Roh has a more shrewd sense of public opinion than his rivals.
The swift reshuffling of power reflects the dominance of personal attributes in South Korea's political scene. In accordance with the redistribution of power and political resources, a party's existence is often tied to a single politician's rise and fall. Those candidates and legislators who transferred their alliance to the Uri party just prior to the election, for example, were staking their political capital on Roh's claim to four more years in office.
Surely, Roh can not absolve himself of responsibility for the political turmoil and social unrest triggered by the impeachment. His rash "postmodern" behavior and the instability and recklessness of a political novice all invited complaint. On the other hand, the GNP and the MDP are not merely anti-reform forces with vested interests. They also represent the traditional elite class in South Korea's stratified society. Born of the upper class, the GNP and MDP look down on Roh's humble origins. The lethal blow for the GNP and MDP, however, was their failure to feel the pulse of their high-tech society. Blind to the leading role of South Korea's young e-generation in shaping society, the GNP and MDP did not have a clue about how to communicate with the young. They are ridiculed as parties lacking qualifications to govern in the age of the Internet.
A progressive president and a backward parliament rarely go well together. Soothing and appealing to the young's ears, Roh's language and style prompted a sense that there was an "opposition for opposition's sake" in the opposition-dominated parliament. This negative effect merely inflamed the indignation of the e-generation. As a result, the call for the "muddleheaded oldies" to step down was on the tongues of Uri Party candidates throughout the campaign. Even Kim Jong-pil, the last of the three power-wielding Kims (the other two being Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung), had no choice but to announce his retirement after the bubble of his party burst.
South Korean political conflict was rife even before Roh first won office. The December, 2002, election then became a battleground in which reformers challenged conservatives, the young confronted the old, and democracy faced off with anti-democratic forces. Even after Roh's election, the resistance of the vested interests in the opposition parties never slackened. The GNP and MDP's persistent boycott of reform bills in the National Assembly was not unlike the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and People First Party (PFP) hampering reform efforts in the Legislative Yuan.
The struggle between ruling and opposition parties in South Korea is marked by a generational conflict. The young challenging the old and usurping their power is a recurring theme in Korean history. The conflict between the old and the young today is a modern version of a conflict between factions representing the old and the new in the late 16th century.
Destiny and tragedy seem to repeat themselves on this peninsula nation, yet the Koreans seem to learn none of the lessons of their history.
Now that the opposition parties have become a minority in parliament, they should acknowledge this reality and support Roh's reforms. They must also learn to grasp social trends and the values of the e-generation. At the same time, they must abandon their "zero-sum" mindset and show more graciousness to halt deepening ethnic and generational divides. Moreover, they should ask Roh to engage in more self-reflection, to pull back from his inferiority-superiority complex and to forego his populist governing style. Only when both sides renounce emotional pronouncements and root their messages in reason will South Korean politics normalize and stabilize.
As two Asian countries to have succeeded in democratizing within the cultural circle of Confucianism, Taiwan and South Korea have recently stumbled along the democratic road. The similar experiences shared by these brother nations may turn out to be necessary ones.
While the impeachment bid might be described as a "parliamentary coup," with the impeached Roh returning to favor at the hands of the people, the post-election protests spearheaded by the KMT-PFP alliance in Taiwan might also be called an attempted "street coup" and have the potential to last until the year-end legislative elections. As with Roh, whether or not the ruling party will claim a majority in the legislature will be the turning point for Chen's administration.
More intriguing is the fact that South Korea's reactionary parliament was despised by its electorate, and Taiwan's opposition-led legislature is yet to open its eyes to this political reality. Taiwan's opposition alliance even attempted to insert new articles for impeaching the president in the Constitution, thereby seeking to hijack legislative reform via the amendment, or to paralyze presidential authority using the threat to impeach. The KMT and PFP's inability to learn from their counterparts in South Korea and their lack of world view and self-reflection is a scene that is distressing to witness.
Yet interaction between Taiwan and South Korean remains smooth and strong despite the two-month-long tumult on their domestic political stages. While Roh was floundering in political limbo, Chen expressed his concern through various channels. Roh then responded in kind. Fellow sufferers
enjoy mutual sympathy.
The South Korean president was restored to power because he knew what was going on in the engine room of Korean society -- Taiwan's opposition would do well to take note