Is Korea a Mature Democracy? Why Does it Matter?

No matter which direction the electorate turns, the choices seem to be disintegrating with each passing day.

The presumptive first woman president, conservative Park Geun-hye, has watched her chances for election fall just short of going down in flames. First, there were the corruption scandals among her campaign organizers that did a brilliant job of reminding folks that Ms. Park comes along with all the sordid baggage of the conservative camp. Then her belated apology to the victims of her father’s excessive abuses of power as president, which came across as too late and too cynical as a means to prop up her sagging polls numbers. And now, there is the least-expected development – major infighting in her campaign, as a result of Ms. Park trying to widen her appeal to the anti-Park family Jeolla region.

During the recent holidays and at a relative’s wedding, I talked with my in-laws, who have generally supported the opposition camp even though they hail from arch-conservative Daegu. They are ardent Ahn Cheol-soo supporters. When I asked them about whether Ahn was truly qualified to serve as president given his absolute zero experience in government and politics, I was told that Ahn is very intelligent and that they expected him to surround himself with equally intelligent advisers.

Okay, I said, but can Ahn beat Park if Moon Jae-in is also running? Of course not, was the reply, but Moon will certainly join up with Ahn in order to beat Park; or in a worst case, Ahn will join forces with Moon.

I responded that both Ahn and Moon are exceptionally intelligent men, but no one has really tested their emotional intelligence. High IQs are often dwarfed by giant-sized egos. If this was a game of chicken to see who would succumb first and offer to join forces, we would have major blood on the highway. And so far, my dire forecast seems to be fulfilling itself.

The fundamental problem, however, may not be the individual psychologies of these leading candidates. The underlying problem is the relative immaturity of Korean democracy that lacks strong political platforms on which candidates stand and for which they volunteer to support. Instead, we have strong personalities that form cliques with lesser politicians. And surrounding these cliques are many hopeful hangers-on who have much to lose should their candidate bow out and support another candidate.

These low-profile power groups place huge amounts of pressure on their candidates that often preclude the politicians from being adequately flexible enough to do the right thing for overall good of the country, or to risk taking turns holding power, by chancing deals where this year’s dominate candidate will support the subordinate candidate during the next major election.

In some ways, one may say that the candidates are figureheads for large vested interest groups that may not actually be all that different on policies but fiercely competitive to gain power. Picture if you can, a three-team rugby match with scrums made up from three teams. The primary difference is one cannot easily see the whole team but only the team captains in these scrums.

Sadly, most of the electorate would very much like to see a change from the current administration of corrupt conservatives who overly favor chaebol and seem incapable to adequately serve the rest of society – regardless of their actual intentions. At the same time, the so-called progressives are proving to be remarkably unreliable and possibly implausible.

But right now, the electoral choices look much less appealing than they did even a month ago. The only person who has proven to be universally popular in Korea these days is, of course, Psy. I joked with my in-laws that perhaps he should run for president. The more I quipped about this outrageous idea, the more practical it seemed, much to my surprise and dismay. But consider the following:

First, Psy does not have a cadre of hangers-on, expecting political spoils. Sure, some want to share in the current limelight. But Psy is not closely affiliated with any political camp.

Second, Psy has as much experience in governance as Ahn Chol-soo. The two men share rock star-like fame. But if only because fame is more recent, Psy seems to be handling his popularity better, recognizing that while his global recognition is well earned, his fame is also a bit of a fluke.

Third, across political lines and generations, Psy is someone that almost everyone in Korea is proud of.

Fourth, Psy has proven exceptional leadership around the world in motivating hundreds of thousands of people to do the horse dance.

Fifth, if elected, we could have one of the most amazing North-South summits. Kim Jong-un is about the same age, size and build as Psy – and has only a year or two more of political experience. What we could be witnessing would portend the future of a unified Korea. Eventually we may even see a “cool” walk-off on live television. We could see who has the better moves, postures and body language – with and without sun glasses.

While I’m not genuinely sincere about a Psy presidential candidacy, we need to also look at where are today. If the election were to be held today, we might expect low voter turnout with the conservatives retaining power as those who desire stability are more likely to turn out in greater numbers than the disheartened idealists who are looking for genuine change in governance.

But it is still a long, long while in political time until the December elections, so matters could very well turn upside down quite unexpectedly. Perhaps Psy entering the fray on one level or another is just what this election needs.

* The author is a Senior Adviser to IPG.  The article appeared in the Korea Joonang Daily on October 16, 2012.

Sean Hayes may be contacted at:
Sean Hayes is co-chair of the Korea Practice Team for one of the leading international law firms. He is the only non-Korean to have worked as an attorney for the Korean court system (Constitutional Court of Korea).

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