[Monthly Special Issue] Special table talk

* A summary of an article carried in ‘MinJuNuRi’; a quarterly magazine published by the KDF

Explanation of terms (not official definitions) :

  • The undonggwon (Democratization Movement Group) : Those who were involved in an organized democratization movement largely led by college students that rose against the authoritarian Korean government from the 1960s to the 1980s.
  • June 10 Uprising : This is a political event that was led to the realization of the direct presidential election system in 1987. Driven by nationwide protests supported by general public, it achieved a procedural democracy in Korea.
  • The chin-Roh : A group of politicians who seek progressive political ideas, notably pursued by Korea’s 16th President Roh Moo-hyun. The President once faced the risk of impeachment pushed ahead by the conservatives.
  • Unified Progressive Party : A political party that was forcibly broken up by the ruling of Constitutional Court of Korea in December 2014. The legal case was initiated when the Korean government took the party to court for rebellion conspiracy. The final verdict was led to the second dissolution of political party ever since the country promulgated the constitution (the first break-up was in 1958). In fact, the insurrection charge was found not guilty, but the liberal party was dissolved, anyway. Because of this, international societies find that Korea’s political freedom has been dramatically shrunk.

Participants :

Lee In-young, National Assemblyman of the opposition Minjoo Party
Ha Tae-kyung, National Assemblyman of the ruling Saenuri Party
Kang Won-taek, Professor of Department of Political Science and International Relations of Seoul National University
Moderator : Jung Hyun-gon, Civil Society Organizations Network in Korea and member of a planning committee of the MinJuNuRi magazine.


In the run-up to the April 13 general election, there was a big reshuffling in the Korean political landscape. Diverse talks were made in the reorganizing process, and there was a negative atmosphere towards the undonggwon. Actually, we heard different discussions themed “post-undonggwon.” At the same time, there were also voices that the mood was unfairly under-evaluating the democratization movement of the undonggwon. Today, we are going to talk about Up- and Down-sides of the Undonggwon Generation Turned Politicians(민주화운동 세대 정치 진출의 공과) under the topic of Revisit Democratization Movement(민주화운동의 재성찰). For that, we are here with two National Assemblymen, both of whom have a personal history of the undonggwon, and a scholar in Political Science who will keep a balance between the politicians.

The role of politicians with undonggwon background is to “breathe with people.”

Jung : First, I want to know what made you join the institutional political circle.

Lee : The political community slowly began to open its door to my generation since the June 10 Uprising of 1987. Reformists who went through democratization movement entered there to change the government. By the time, there were debates about what strategy they should have. One idea was to make an independent political party. Another was to participate in the conventional political system and work with those who had similar idea, building a bridge through which more people with the background could participate in there. The latter sounded more strategic to me, so I started my life as career politician (in the National Assembly) in the late 1999, one year before the 16th general election.

Ha : I have a pretty different story. I belonged to “1987 undonggwon” and describe myself as the first generation that departed from the movement group. I became a National Assemblyman through the 19th general election in 2012. I thought that Korea was in chaotic state during the Lee Myung-bak administration, especially in the throes of protests against lifting ban on US beef. I found it baseless the argument that part of the beef was from slaughtering cows with mad cow disease. I also considered it very problematic to see “pro-North Korea” groups rapidly spreading among the public, as found in the case of the Unified Progressive Party. These examples made me determined to fight against the situation where negative legacies of the leftist undonggwon put Korea on shaky grounds. I came into conflict with my comrades over diverse issues, for instance, unification and North Korea. I thought that we needed a paradigm shift in the unification approach. These are the reasons why I changed my course from “pro-North Korea” to “against-North Korea.” In my belief, my mission is to put an end to the negative legacy of the leftists and to prepare and bolster a new group of people for the unification of South and North Korea. This commitment had me become a member of the ruling party, though I have a different personal history.

National Assemblyman Ha Tae-kyung has devoted himself to activities for addressing North Korea’s human rights problems. Image of National Assemblyman Ha Tae-kyung, urging the UN to establish Commission of Inquiry.

National Assemblyman Lee In-young is a representative figure among those with democratization movement background-turned politician. Image of National Assemblyman Lee In-young, working as head of the National Council of Student Representatives in 1987.

Are talks of “post-undonggwon” sound?

Jung : What do you think about this topic?

Lee : Personally, it is not good to face the criticism. Particularly, I do not think it fair for some conservative presses and those who went silent and/or accepted the military dictatorship to keep up such commentary. My idea is that they are not giving objective evaluation on the movement but rationalizing themselves for some reasons. Given this, I think the talk is not on sound ground, though everyone has his or her say.

Ha : My perception on politicians with the undonggwon background in opposition parties is helpless, “vision-less” and “ability-less.” Some of them carry out their activities in ways they did decades ago, bombard rough words and do not attend a National Assembly meeting for months. Conservative press outlets and others found it difficult to properly stigmatize them, so they shrewdly combined the familiar word chin-Roh and the leftist undonggwon.

Jung : Both of you have different ideas about it. But I can say that two of you are saying that it is not healthy, is it?

Lee : The problem is that we were divided and failed to raise one voice. Indeed, we have vision and ability, but the division made us helpless. Now is the time for some of us to emerge and play the role of a leader.

Ha : Still, they show old practices. For example, they failed to become a real parliamentarian. This is why they take to street, when dissatisfied with ways in which the National Assembly does its business. Some people argue that the Korean society has seen the advent of the “noble undonggwon” since 1987. When we say that the chaebol, collectively meaning mighty Korean conglomerates, is the original vested rights, the novel political group is a new one. The public are resentful to them.

Kang : There is a difference between social movement and the institutionalized politics, so it is important for undonggwon-turned politician to implant their ideas in the existing political circle. But, in the early days, they failed to do so. We are seeing the word chin-Roh before undonggwon these days. This is partly because those with such background, particularly those unqualified or not prepared, made their way into the National Assembly with the political leg-up of the then-President Roh Moo-hyun being at the risk of impeachment. However, they fell short of the expectations. For instance, the then-ruling party became an absolute majority party, but failed to abolish “four evil laws.” This case clearly shows that their political ideals were not backed up by their capability. I suspect that Korean people perceived these activities as immature and negative.

Undonggwon’s transformation and overcoming itself

Jung : National Assemblyman Lee In-young is one of leading politicians and another undonggwon member became the representative of the opposition party. Isn’t it meaningful?

Kang : Of course, it is. Whoever assumes critical roles in the process of the presidential election scheduled in the next year will see his or her evaluation change. It is true that the undonggwon is viewed as a group of people who only criticize and pose problems. People think that they failed to paint the future with hope. This is how conservative news media and the ruling party preyed on them most comfortably.

Lee : National Assemblyman Ha Tae-kyung said that they remain unchanged, but I can surely say that their ideals did change. Now, none of us urges an extreme protest. They are just moderate enough to tout “economic democratization.” Regarding labor laws, part of the Korean Federation of Trade Union told us not to even think of proposing a legislation draft. As I thought it reasonable to bring in the bill and receive reviews on it, I did so. It turned out that my idea was right. If we had gone out to the street to appeal to the public, instead of proceeding with it in the National Assembly, we would have been backlashed during the election.

Ha : It is their mission to get over the negative perception on them. I can cite many improper things that are passed down from the past in opposition parties. A good example is the coalition with the Unified Progressive Party for the general election in 2012. The party is a totalitarian leftist one, and other opposition parties should have drawn the line at it, at some point. I put the dissolution of the party in my campaign pledge. Another example is policies on North Korea which I think are based on unilateral aid plans. Yet another is that they desperately went against the North Korean Human Rights Act bill. They say that they are changed, but that is what they say. The public does not buy it.

Lee : It is fair to criticize the progressive party from the perspective of general public. I believe that there was a problem with regard to democratic procedure within the political organization. It cannot avoid related allegation as it failed to answer clearly to the public. But, regarding the draft on the human rights in the North, we did not turn a blind eye. We were considerate about political impacts that could potentially affect reconciliation, peace and cooperation down the road. No, we have never looked the other way.

Sensitivity to issues of eras

Jung : We covered the issue of post-undonggwon. Now, I want to know desired directions for them to work for the change of the Korean society. What are they?

Lee : We proposed “economic democratization” and “welfare” in the aged of polarization. The Korean economy is now faced with the low growth cycle. We have to admit that the economy cannot grow any more as we did in the 1970s and 1980s. Given this, we have to consider a “concerted growth.” This idea is to grow an economy through the peace in a society and an industry, while reducing elements of conflict through consensus in society. When a progressive President takes office, we have to introduce the social consensus model representatively found in Northern European countries. We are also in need of a “unification-led growth.” Through this, we can make ourselves prepare for a unified Korean peninsula. This economic model could bring an additional 1% and 10% of economic growth to the South and the North, respectively. The 1% may sound small, but it is a huge effect, considering the economic scale of Korea. This is a true win-win model.

Ha : The conservatives are more problematic these days. The reason behind the failure in the recent general election is that my party returned to authoritarianism. It was not the matter of vision, or ideological tactics. Vestiges of the dictatorship and authoritarian regime that had been found only inside of my party during the Lee Myung-bak administration and the current administration became revealed to the public. My concerns are that I cannot find the vision and future of new right-wingers. It is questionable whether they can really change their culture. What matters here is that if they have the capability that can address the current crisis. There is another issue, which is about ideology. I suspect that my party has to leave the liberal conservatism based on the national security and the market economy. The zeitgeist of now is equality. We desperately need “equal conservatism.” It can be interpreted as a measure tackling polarization. The crisis in the rightist is not likely to be solved with ease. The situation can make the party divided. Jung : Listening to your ideas, I find that those with democratization movement background, including both of you, have such an outstanding insight that catches issues of the times. I believe that viewpoints made on the perception on diverse social issues are priceless.

Kang : Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of democratization, but we are still wandering in the systems of the past. Take the creative economy as an example. Though a good direction for the future, it has been driven by bureaucrats and large companies. I mean the way of carrying it out has yet to go away from the practices we conducted when we simply focused on development. The democratization movement generation is applaudable in that it defeated old regimes and set up a new environment. But it sits there, unchanged. The authority within the premise of the central government should be transferred to the civil society and local governments. Planning programs for autonomy and consensus is a new way of governing and goes hand in hand with global trends.

Solution to labor polarization

Ha : I talked about the change in the right-wingers and equality-conservatism on which we can come up with diversified growth plans. In this sense, I suggest an “integrated growth.”(통합적 성장) We have seen that the conventional economic development aggravated imbalance and polarization. It is the time for us to share pains and strike grand compromise. By doing so, rightists and leftists can reach agreements on increasing tax, making labor market flexible and relaxing regulations. For example, those who generate big profits should be allowed to continue to do so. They must not be regulated. Instead, they should pay more tax for bigger incomes. The increased tax money will go to the needy, realizing trickle-down effect, even in a forced way. Many people are talking about jobs, but we cannot stop unemployment rate from going higher with time. This is why the rightists have to ponder about ways of creating more social works. The issue of tax increase should be an invariable number, not a variable we can mobilize when in need. What is problematic here is that this idea easily falls prey to those who made success in their life. This is because one of the hardest things is to change the idea of those who achieved success in their lives.

Lee : My take is that the Korean labor market is already flexible enough. The powerful in the market have not conceded as much as the labor did. For instance, ever since the late 1990s when Korea was under the foreign currency crisis, the chaebol or the capitalists have not made sacrifice as much as the labor has. This is the reason why the balance was lost. A survey revealed that half of the paid workers are temporarily hired. Considering those who employ themselves because they cannot find a job, the rate goes higher. It is true that opposition parties have not been vocal to labor issues in the society. They have not been successful in broaching the need of change in unions, which is demonstrated through their non-compromising character and their becoming a group of vested rights. I believe that both of those in regular positions and those in non-regular ones have to be in the same boat. On top of that, companies have to go bold in posting “Wanted” signs. This is a way we can make a fundamental change in the current job market. I believe we can address job stability-related issues in that way. Regarding tax increase, the government should not raise tax burdened by paid workers and value added tax. This is not just and will be a bigger burden to the working class, causing social conflicts. It has to eliminate tax break for the chaebol ahead of anything else.

Ha : As the jobless rate is on track to climb, everyone has to abide by the principle that whoever makes money will contribute to his or her society. Given this, not only businesses but individuals have to pay more tax. If he or she only receives help from others, his or her self-esteem will be hurt. Despair found among young adults is about the quality, not the quantity, of jobs. Decent positions are enjoyed by so called “noble union members“. Some unions made a written agreement with their employers that their positions shall go to their sons and daughters. To appease the resentment among those job-seekers, we have to get rid of significant difference in quality among jobs. Every job should be coveted and satisfactory enough for anyone to go and get. There should no excessive preference on jobs provided by large firms, corporations, or other entities that provide “iron rice bowl”, or job security with generous benefits. Labor polarization, among diverse types of polarization, brings home to the public the difficulty of finding a job. The “iron rice bowl” is where policy-makers have to reform.

Kang : Regardless of political bent, be it whether the progressive or the conservative, when someone who underwent and accepted democratization comes into power, much of unnecessary social conflict will go away. I questioned myself why the undonggwon did not go successful in nurturing their political capability quickly and emerging as leaders. The answer in my thought was that they were not good at communicating with the public and embracing others, though they were righteous and faithful. Put it differently, they tended to teach and persuade others when they found something wrong with them. They were unlikely to try to understand what they thought or how to accept them. This attitude made them “breathe with the public,” though there were not a few politicians with the background in the political arena.

Democracy and peaceful unification

Jung : It is almost the time to wrap up the talk. Lee : Our task is to deepen the democracy and work for peaceful unification. Democracy, equality and unification are also the issues of the conservatives. In the past, the two were divided : the progressive went for freedom, and the conservative went for dictatorship. But now they are competing on the same ground, and people judge which one is better. Now the South and the North are at crossroads, so untangling the current deadlock is a good way to start with for economic reasons among others.

Ha : What I said with consistence is the grand innovation in the Korean conservatism. Here is a history story we can learn a lesson from. As the Japanese colonial ruling on the Korean peninsula continued, more and more Korean people became less interested in their independence. Part of people who had fought for liberation turned friendly to Japan, however the liberation eventually came. Likewise, the prolonged division between South and North Korea makes people less attracted to the unification of them. But I am sure that there will be a unified Korea someday. In preparation for it, the rightists have to dramatically change the current state, so called “isolated conservatism.”

Kang : The mission given to us is to deepen our democracy. Going forward, we have to focus on realizing and teaching democratic values in our everyday life, going beyond the level of practicing procedural democracy. Considering that, living communities, local areas, schools and civic education will be more important. How can we prove ourselves as an agent of democracy to North Koreans, if we do not truly learn and practice democratic values in our daily life? We have to advance our democracy so that we can teach them democratic norms and values when the two become one.

Jung : Thank you for sharing your valued ideas for strengthening the democracy of the Korean society today!